BUFFALO – Pace. Coach Don Granato mentioned it over and over – 16 times, to be exact – after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s home game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. His reeling team doesn’t showcase enough of it.
“If I compare … seeing a game from last season and a game from this season, it’s the pace,” Granato said following Wednesday’s practice in KeyBank Center. “The pace is the difference. … We compete better when we play with pace. We’re more aggressive defensively when we play with pace and we attack better on offense.”
The Sabres’ struggles can be sliced and diced a thousand ways, but simply playing with greater pace would go a long way toward helping them correct many of their problems.
In the aftermath of Tuesday’s embarrassing 9-4 home loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, a game in which they trailed 7-1 in the second period, Granato said the Sabres focused on upping their tempo.
“So we looked at clips of us playing high-pace, high-tempo hockey as a comparison to situations where we didn’t,” he said. “So you have a vision of where you want to go and greater clarity on where you want to go.”
A full, healthy lineup might help the Sabres, who rank 14th in the Eastern Conference, recapture that style. Incredibly, 33 games into the season, their regular group of 12 forwards hasn’t played together once.
That could change soon. Jeff Skinner, out the last three games with an upper-body injury, returned to practice Wednesday in his regular spot on the top line alongside center Tage Thompson and Alex Tuch.
Meanwhile, winger Jordan Greenway, out the last nine contests with an upper-body injury, practiced again Wednesday, this time at right wing alongside center Casey Mittelstadt and rookie Zach Benson.
Both players could return as soon as tonight.
“Jeff is still in progression, and today was a big part of that progression to see where he’s at,” Granato said. “So it’s not certain he’ll be in (against Toronto). But the progression today looked good.”
Skinner hasn’t played since since last Wednesday, when Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon leveled him as he zoomed down the left wing into the Colorado zone.
“It was clean,” Skinner said of the hit. “I saw him. Obviously, I didn’t have myself in a good enough position to accept it and kind of an awkward distance from the boards.”
If Skinner and Greenway play, the only forward sidelined would be winger Zemgus Girgensons, who has missed the last 13 games with a lower-body injury. Granato said earlier this week the Latvian could play before the Sabres’ three-day Christmas break begins following Saturday’s road game against the New York Rangers.
Winger Jack Quinn made his season debut Tuesday after tearing his Achilles tendon in late June.
“Something we haven’t really gotten to this year is just the full lineup were used to,” Thompson said.
Thompson has already missed eight games, four more than last season. Tuch has missed seven, one less than last year. Skinner has missed three, the same amount as a season ago, when he remained healthy but earned a suspension.
The injuries have forced Granato to constantly rearrange his lines and created what he called “another obstacle.”
“It’s another challenge,” he said. “You put Skinner out there today with Tuch and Thompson, they’re on the same page immediately with what they do up and down the rink because they’ve played so long together.”
On Wednesday, Granato also reunited Quinn with center Dylan Cozens and JJ Peterka, the team’s second line much of last season.
The slick trio can certainly help the Sabres recapture the style Granato wants to play.
“They played with pace, which is something we need to do a lot more of,” he said of what made the line effective last season. “We’ve talked a lot about compete, but we need to play with a better pace, we need to up the pace. That’s what they did … play with a lot of pace up and down the ice, pressure without the puck, lots of skill and speed with the puck, attack.
“Again, if I think about where we’re at and our stumbles and whatnot, a lot of it is we need to play at a higher pace.”
Cozens, who has mustered just six goals this season after scoring 31 last year, said he and his linemates possess confidence to play freely and attack.
“Us three as a line were really dangerous off the rush,” he said. “It allowed us more time and space because teams were backing off a bit.”
Notes: With Skinner and Greenway practicing on regular lines Wednesday, center Tyson Jost and winger Victor Olofsson skated as extras. … The Sabres on Wednesday sent winger Brett Murray back to the Rochester Americans following two appearances. … Defenseman Jacob Bryson, who on Tuesday cleared waivers and was assigned to Rochester, played for the Amerks on Wednesday, his first appearance in the AHL since Feb. 20, 2021.