By Bill Hoppe
BUFFALO — On the toughest days, when the slump turned from weeks into months and the cries the Sabres had overpaid for a free agent bust grew louder, Ville Leino laughed and smiled.
Staying loose is Leino’s style. He’s not one to pout. The likable winger remained positive throughout a trying half a season or so. That’s just his personality, something he gets from his mother.
“I like being around people who are always in a good mood, fun to be around,” Leino said Thursday inside the First Niagara Center. “ … Everybody around the room is dealing with a lot of pressure, so … it doesn’t really help you to be in a bad mood.”
The Finn’s adjustment to the Sabres after signing a six-year, $27 million contract in July has admittedly been difficult. In 42 games, he has only four goals, 15 points and a minus-5 rating. He’s switched from center to the wing and back a few times.
But now, with a goal, five points and a plus-4 in the last four contests heading into tonight’s home tilt against the Dallas Stars, it appears Leino’s turning a corner. He’s showcasing strong chemistry playing left wing beside Derek Roy and Jason Pominville in Thomas Vanek’s absence.
In the Sabres’ 6-0 win Wednesday over Boston, Leino dazzled, setting up two Pominville goals, one with a nifty spin-o-rama. Leino was also a plus-3.
“(It’s) the most fun I’ve had and the best I’ve felt,” Leino said about his recent run.
It’s been a long time coming, though.
“It hasn’t been easy this season, definitely frustrating,” Leino admitted. “But I always try to be happy and not think about that so much. … It’s not going to ease up until you get your confidence back. I was working on my game and trying to do that.”
While Leino didn’t say it affected his play, he found the Sabres “way too serious” as they struggled mightily much of the season. That’s changed during the team’s current 4-0-1 run.
“You got to have fun but you got to be serious,” Leino said. “That’s the balance we got to find a little better. I feel like because now we’re having fun, if you watch us on the ice, watch us in practice, we go hard, we work hard – but we’re still having fun, we’re still playing with a swagger. Sometimes you need that swagger to get going.”
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said months ago Leino’s acclimation could take time, a line he repeated Thursday. Leino, a winger in Philadelphia, switched to center under the pressure of a huge contract. There were also new teammates and team dynamics to understand.
Ruff compared Leino to Jaroslav Spacek, who struggled in his first season five years ago. Spacek eventually got comfortable and became the Sabres’ best defenseman for two years.
“He’s starting to fit in better, which shows up on the ice,” Ruff said about Leino.
It showed on his first assist Wednesday, when Leino zoomed to the bottom of the left circle and found Pominville with a no-look backhand as he raced to the net.
“He made the defenseman look pretty silly on that one,” Roy said.
He added: “To play his game (Leino) has to be loose. To make plays and be confident with the puck at all times of the game you have to be loose. … I feel him gaining confidence, skating better.”
With Vanek, half of a dynamic wing tandem all season with Pominville, possibly returning tonight (upper body), can Ruff really take Leino off the top line?
“Short-term, it’s going to be tough to bust up any line,” Ruff said.
In just three games together, Leino and Pominville already know the other’s instincts.
“I’m more of a playmaker,” Leino said. “I need to have a guy who knows kind of how I’m thinking, where I’m thinking of putting the puck so I don’t always have to look first and make the play. I can just play on the instincts. He is a great goal scorer. He knows where I’m going and I feel like I know where he’s going even though I don’t look.”
That’s a sign of comfort.
“I’ve been having fun the last (few) games working hard, making plays, enjoying hockey, enjoying playing, enjoying trying to win the games,” Leino said. “Obviously, there’s more confidence to it.”
Ruff, who broke three ribs during practice Monday, stayed inside and let his five assistants run Thursday’s session. Ruff had toyed with sitting on the bench. He’ll be in the press box again tonight as James Patrick runs the bench.
He thought his staff did a terrific job Wednesday.
“The true test is what went on last night when guys had to step in,” Ruff said. “You want them to be ready and I thought they were.”
Ruff got an “earful” sitting next to excitable goalie coach Jim Corsi upstairs.
“He scared me a couple times,” Ruff joked.
Sabres center Jochen Hecht, out the last five games after suffering his third concussion in 10 months, is doing “better” and will undergo a neck procedure that could alleviate some pain, Ruff said.
The procedure is similar to one winger Patrick Kaleta had. Hecht saw a chiropractor when he was sidelined in October. He’s not out for the season, Ruff said.
Notes: Vanek, who practiced with Kaleta and Brad Boyes on Thursday, on possibly not playing with Pominville: “Geez, life goes on.” … Forward Paul Gaustad sat practice for a maintenance day and will play tonight.