Ryan O'Reilly has still played almost 22 minutes a game this season. ©2017, Dan Hickling, Olean Times Herald

Sabres’ Ryan O’Reilly still playing big minutes

BUFFALO – Ideally, the Sabres won’t have to keep utilizing versatile center Ryan O’Reilly for more than 25 minutes a game like they did in Sunday’s 4-3 loss in Pittsburgh.

O’Reilly, Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said, has a “sweet spot” for his ice time. While he didn’t give a specific number, it’s probably in the 21- or 22-minute range.

Bylsma said during training camp he wanted to give O’Reilly, who led all NHL forwards in ice time last season, a little less playing time.

Five months into the season, Bylsma has trimmed O’Reilly’s ice time by … one second.

O’Reilly averaged 21:44 in his 71 appearances last season. He’s at 21:43 – the highest total among forwards again – in his 56 games this season entering tonight’s tilt against the Philadelphia Flyers at KeyBank Center.

He played 23:08 and a season-high 25:32 in back-to-back weekend games.

“He’s never going to come off the ice if I put him out there, and that was the case in the last couple games,” Bylsma said this morning. “He got a few more minutes than maybe his sweet spot is.”

The huge ice times haven’t hurt O’Reilly’s offensive production. He has a four-game point streak (three goals and six points) and a goal in three straight games.

“I’m never going to say no to going on the ice,” O’Reilly said. “If it was up to me, I’d play the full 60. … I have no problem with it. I think sometimes it can get tough, you have to manage the shifts a bit better and things like that.

“I love going on the ice. I think I can be effective every time I touch it.”

Don’t be surprised if O’Reilly keeps earning big minutes. The Sabres are fighting to stay in the playoff chase. They’re also missing first-line winger Kyle Okposo, who’s week-to-week with a rib injury. O’Reilly just overtook Okposo for the team’s scoring lead.

“There’s situations that we try to trim the minutes out from Ryan and use him for a faceoff and get him off the ice on a penalty is one of them, versus having him stay on the ice,” Bylsma said. “We get situations where we need a big draw – defensive situations, D-zone – those are the situations where you’re going to see his minutes remain high.”

O’Reilly, 26, set a high standard for production in 2015-16, compiling 21 goals and a team-best 60 points. At this time last season, however, he was in the midst of a 24-game goal drought.

He has 16 goals and 44 points this season, a 21-goal, 57-point pace.

“I want to be up in that point range or even more,” O’Reilly said of last year’s numbers. “I don’t have a specific number and specific total in each. But I think each game calls for different things. Sometimes I got to shoot the puck a bit more.”

Bylsma said: “When he’s shot the puck, it’s when he’s been a factor for us in the goal-scoring column for us, same on the power play. Power-play goals have been one-timers coming over to his side.”

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