BUFFALO – The most vivid memory of Zemgus Girgensons’ NHL debut isn’t the goal he scored in Detroit’s historic Joe Louis Arena. No, something far less exciting stands out to the Sabres winger.
On Girgensons’ first shifts Oct. 2, 2013, he said star Pavel Datsyuk’s line kept hemming the Sabres in their own zone.
“I definitely remember that more than I scored a goal,” Girgensons said this morning prior to his 300th NHL game.
Girgensons, whose parents missed their flight to the game, later scored on his first shot in the 2-1 loss to the Red Wings.
Back then, Girgensons, 23, looked like a big piece of the Sabres’ future. After drafting him 14th overall in 2012, he cracked the NHL as a teenager.
Girgensons enjoyed a first-line role in 2014-15, scoring 15 times in 61 games. Proud fans at home in Latvia stuffed online ballots so he earned a spot in the NHL All-Star Game.
Then Girgensons’ role and production quickly dwindled as the Sabres rebuilt their lineup. For the past few years, he has mostly shuttled between center and the wing as a third- or fourth-liner.
The Sabres, meanwhile, haven’t made the playoffs during his tenure.
“Definitely not what I wanted out of those seasons … but definitely a learning curve,” Girgensons said inside KeyBank Center. “You can learn a lot from 300 games.”
Since his 15-goal season, Girgensons has scored 15 goals in 168 games.
Entering tonight’s tilt against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Girgensons has a career-long 17-game point drought. He hasn’t recorded one since scoring his only goal this season Oct. 14.
“It’s definitely tough, especially when you’re in those slumps, it’s in your mind and it’s not easy to get out,” Girgensons said. “You just stick with it, you do the system, you play the right way and it will come.”
Girgensons usually produces points during his brief stints beside center Jack Eichel. But Girgensons said he doesn’t showcase that same offensive style with other linemates.
“Sometimes maybe when I play with someone else I maybe try to adapt a little bit to the other type of game,” he said. “I think I just have to stick with what I do best and it’ll all come together.”
Girgensons will likely play at left wing tonight beside center Johan Larsson and Matt Moulson, a fourth line that has combined for two goals and seven points this season.
So what has Girgensons evolved into five seasons and 300 games into his career?
“(A) two-way player, definitely offense has been a problem the past couple years, so it’s definitely something I’m focusing on,” he said. “But penalty kill is something I definitely established throughout my games, so that’s one of my big parts of my games.”
To Sabres coach Phil Housley, Girgensons’ aggressive style might eventually pay off.
“He’s just got to continue to go hard to the net, that’s his area where he’s at his best, being physical on the forecheck, disrupting plays in the offensive zone and just getting down into the zone and wanting to get dirty down there,” Housley said.