By Bill Hoppe
BUFFALO — Forget, for a moment, that Brayden McNabb offered glimpses of future stardom, T.J. Brennan scored in his NHL debut or former first-round pick Joe Finley showcased a fearsome edge.
The three rookie defensemen played well at times substituting on the injury-ravaged blue line. Still, it’s no coincidence the Sabres have enjoyed much greater success this season when their regular crew plays together.
Buoyed by the returns of Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr, the Sabres beat New Jersey 2-1 in a shootout Jan 24. Overall, they’re 2-0-1 since the defense corps reached full strength again, earning five of a possible six points.
The Sabres have allowed just two scores in the last 190 minutes heading into tonight’s tilt in New York against the Islanders. Goalie Ryan Miller’s goals-against average is a miniscule 0.63 over that span.
“It’s been great. We’ve been working hard to get familiar with playing with one another again,” Regehr said about the defense Friday inside the First Niagara Center. “It’s sure nice to be able to roll three pairs of defensemen. Guys are able to just keep their energy levels up a little higher.
“I think the blue line’s been solid. … It’s something to build on these last couple games.”
It’s been more than a couple of games, though.
In only 22 of the Sabres’ 51 games have six of the top seven defensemen that started the season played together. The Sabres are 13-8-1, allowing just 2.32 goals a contest, in those games. The numbers in the others – 8-16-5 and 3.41 – are awful.
Marc-Andre Gragnani, the odd man out recently, is the only defenseman to remain healthy all season. The Sabres have lost the other six for 57 total games.
The injuries, of course, have a huge ripple effect. Some defenders receive too many minutes. Pairs shift constantly.
Mike Weber accumulated a minus-7 rating, including a wretched minus-4 effort Jan. 16, during an eight-game stretch last month in which he skated at least 19:58 each night. Weber even played the power play.
Now, his minutes have leveled off to about 17 a game and he’s playing better, sporting an even rating over his last three appearances.
Jordan Leopold said he’s skated with every defensemen this season, making it difficult to find chemistry. He’s settled in nicely beside Regehr, his partner for years in Calgary, recently, however.
“To have a regular partner for more than one game has been nice,” Leopold said. “Definitely, I think we play with more confidence. We play a little bit more aggressively than we were when we didn’t have everybody in the lineup.
“I guess it gives us a little more of an added bump and definitely we’re playing better because of it.”
With the Sabres clamping down and limiting chances the past few games, the offensive opportunities have gone up. They had more than 20 scoring chances Tuesday in their 3-1 win in Montreal and nearly 20 in a 1-0 shootout loss Wednesday to the New York Rangers, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said.
“(That) tells you you’re not spending a lot of time in your own end,” Ruff said. “And when you’re not defending it a lot, you’re not spending a lot of time dumping it in and changing. You’re on the attack most of it.”
Ehrhoff and Tyler Myers have been leading much of the attack. To create more offense, Ruff put the two slick puck-rushers together for the first time Tuesday, switching Ehrhoff to the left side.
“I talked to Christian about playing the left side, maybe getting more one-timers from down low,” Ruff said. “ … He didn’t seem to be getting enough shots for me from the other side, and I think his shots have gone up.”
Ehrhoff has nine shots in the last two games, including a season-high six Wednesday. The German had eight shots in the previous five tilts.
“It’s been a while since I played the left side,” said Ehrhoff, who possesses a lethal shot. “I’ve really enjoyed it so far. I think we feed off each other. I think we bring some offense but also play well on defense. I think it’s worked well so far.”
Ruff said Brennan, out since suffering a possible concussion Jan. 19 in Winnipeg, is “still not good.”
“He’s getting treatment,” Ruff said. “He’s had some further x-rays and stuff.”
Meanwhile, Ruff said forwards Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford are over the flu and will play tonight when Miller tries to break the franchise’s all-time wins mark. Right now, he’s tied with Dominik Hasek at 234.
Recent recall Zack Kassian is still with the team.
Ruff on regular center Paul Gaustad playing the left wing beside Brad Boyes and Patrick Kaleta: “There’s times it allows him to maybe skate a little bit more than being down low doing all the work. He’s more of a north-south (player). … Playmaking through the middle of the ice isn’t one of his strengths. His strength is using his size, and I think along the wall he’s been able to do a real good job for us.”
Gaustad turned 30 years old Friday.