Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
The Buffalo Sabres are in the midst of a five game winless streak that began with an OT loss to the San Jose' Sharks 10 days ago. And, coincidently, the Sabres have been without center Zemgus Girgensons, who went down with an upper-body injury in that Sharks game.
Pending the morning skate, Girgensons is set to return tonight as the Sabres take on the Nashville Predators at the First Niagara Center. For a guy who has only one goal and one assist on the year, there's a lot of anticipation surrounding his return. "The scoring chance differential with Zemgus on the ice for us is pretty substantial," head coach Dan Bylsma told the media after yesterday's practice. "He's got one goal and one assist [but] what Zemgus has brought us is that differential in the matchups he's gotten.
"We've missed him considerably."
The question posed to Bylsma before that response was framed around the coach putting the two-way Girgensons in "some pretty tough matchups." In his absence, Bylsma has relied upon the top line of Ryan O'Reilly, Brian Gionta and Matt Moulson to do much of the dirty work, per se, in matching up against the opposition top lines. O'Reilly has been logging his usual mega-minutes and because of his faceoff prowess, Bylsma has had him taking key faceoffs in the defensive end.
Somehow O'Reilly has managed to cover the entire 200' x 85' surface, while scoring three of the Sabres five goals during the winless streak. But, if it isn't beginning to take it's toll now, that amount of energy expended in all three zones while carrying the weight of the team's scoring, will eventually get to him. He has zero goals and is a minus-2 in his last two games.
Girgensons' numbers, as Bylsma (partially) alluded to, aren't anything to speak of, but the energy he expends either pressuring the puck or controlling it takes a load off of his teammates. Puck possession is the key element to the Sabres offense and when asked by Sabres broadcaster Brian Duff if Girgensons' absence had been noticeable, despite his numbers, O'Reilly replied, "Absolutely."
"Whenever we have the puck, technically we're on offense," he expounded. "Having [Girgensons,] who has great vision for [puck possession] and who protects the puck well, obviously it hurts when you have a guy like that out of the lineup."
At yesterday's practice Bylsma had Girgensons in Evander Kane's spot on the left wing with rookies Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. Kane, according to Bylsma is day-to-day with an lower-body injury which may be a good thing for that line. Although Eichel and Kane have immense speed and talent, while Reinhart is the maestro, that line gets their chances almost exclusively off the rush and in today's NHL, most lanes are usually clogged. Having Girgensons working hard down low and drawing the attention of the defense should open up the ice for his linemates.
Another thing Bylsma might try is creating offense from the penalty kill. I say this with full knowledge that the Sabres are 29th in the league on the kill while also knowing that Bylsma doesn't teach that. After Eichel scored a shortie in the preseason, the fifth game in a row that the Sabres did that, Bylsma was quoted as saying, "I have never, ever, ever been a part of a mentality of [looking for the shorthanded goal]," said Bylsma to the media at the time. "It would be one thing if we talked about scoring a shorthanded goal or we're looking for opportunities, which just hasn't been the case.
"Again, it's not something we're trying to do, or looking for opportunities we're looking to exploit, it's just that they've come and you've got a skill player, a speed player like Jack out there and it's turned into two [shorties] for us."
However, you cannot deny that players like Eichel and Girgensons, O'Reilly and Kane have the ability to turn the puck up-ice and put the pressure on their powerplay. They're smart enough to know when to switch gears and have enough speed and skill to bust it out the other way. Even the knowledge that the possibility is real can put a powerplay on it's heels ever so slightly as to make a difference.
Up until his injury, Girgensons had been a mainstay on the PK logging the third-most PK time amongst Sabres forwards. Eichel, in his absence has seen his PK time increase. Having both out there together, especially against the opposition's 2nd PP unit, is something for the other team to think about.
Regardless of his role, "The Latvian Locomotive" is happy to be back on the ice. "I'm excited to get back with the team," Girgensons told Duff after practice yesterday. "I've been bored the past few days with [the] injury."