By Bill Hoppe
Sabres winger Tyler Ennis had never been hurt so badly before, a remarkable accomplishment considering he’s a 5-foot-9, 157-pound scorer unafraid to zoom into traffic and get dirty.
Ennis said he once sat about three games in junior. Then, as an AHL rookie two years ago in Portland, a concussion sidelined him a few more.
That was until Ennis suffered a high-ankle sprain Oct. 22 in Tampa Bay. The 22-year-old missed the next 17 games, finally returning Friday for the Sabres’ 4-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings at the First Niagara Center.
“It (stinks). I mean, you don’t want to be hurt,” Ennis said prior to his 100th NHL contest. “It’s tough when you’re watching the boys out there in a big game. You can’t do anything. You’re just sitting there. You just want to be back. I’m glad I’m ready to go.”
Ennis’ slow start only added to the misery of watching. He was pointless in seven games before getting injured, a surprise considering he never bottomed out during a slick rookie season in which he scored 20 goals and 49 points. His longest point drought in 2010-11 was only six games.
Right now, Ennis is trying to treat his return like a new season.
“I’ve had some time look at the habits of other guys and get my body stronger,” Ennis said. “I’ve just been able to kind of focus on how I’m going to play when I come back. I’m ready to do that now. It’s a fresh start almost. I’m real excited. I feel good. I feel healthy.”
He skated 13:03 Friday, going pointless on the left wing, mostly with Derek Roy and Drew Stafford.
The problems began in the preseason, when Ennis and linemates Stafford and Ville Leino weren’t getting enough pucks to the net, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said.
“They had some great possession shifts,” Ruff said. “But the end of the shift there was not a single shot on net, and I think you end up with ... ‘I should’ve put a few more pucks on the net.’ And you start talking ‘should’ve.’ ‘Should’ve’ usually means something didn’t go right.”
Ennis added: “We weren’t chipping it in and getting it in. We weren’t throwing pucks at the net, and that’s how you score these days, by just going to the net.”
Of course, handling the puck is probably Ennis’ greatest strength. He’s speedy and shifty, two assets that can make trying to cover him an ordeal.
“We need him to be creative when he can be,” Ruff said. “He knows the situations we want him to hang on. He knows the situations where he’s got to try to get pucks to the net. ... He even admitted that he passed up some great opportunities. Those are the ones.
“But part of Tyler being effective is his ability to hang onto the puck and open people up. “We need him to hang onto pucks.”
Ennis said he needs to pick his spots.
“I try to be creative and use my speed, and east-west, lateral movement is part of my game,” he said. You score goals by going to the net. It’s more of a north-south game. I got to just use my speed as much as I can and get to the net, and hopefully they go.”
When Tyler Myers experienced a long sophomore slump last season, Ruff said he was “99.9 percent sure” the defenseman would get out of it,” something he echoed about Ennis.
“There a lot of players struggling in the league right now, a lot of good players,” Ruff said. “It’s going to start with really working hard, being diligent about your opportunities, making sure they’re on net.”
Winger Patrick Kaleta (groin, four games) returned, and then was reinjured after playing only 7:38. Winger Nathan Gerbe, meanwhile, was sliced by a skate in his face and left early. He is questionable for tonight’s game in Nashville.
Ruff wasn’t sure about a recall. The Sabres have Matt Ellis as an extra forward.
Goalie Ryan Miller (concussion, eight games) dressed, backing up Jhonas Enroth. He could start tonight.
Defenseman Jordan Leopold (upper body) missed his first game.
The much-hyped Joe Finley, a 6-foot-8, 260-pound defender, replaced him, becoming the ninth rookie to play for the Sabres this season and the fifth to make his NHL debut.
Finley skated 7:51, much of it beside fellow rookie Brayden McNabb.