By Bill Hoppe
If Mike Weber couldn’t play Wednesday, then when would the 23-year-old defenseman ever make his season debut?
Two home losses last week had suddenly ended the Sabres’ torrid start. With the rough-and-tumble Philadelphia Flyers in town, they needed a spark, a physical presence Marc-Andre Gragnani, the struggling No. 6 defender couldn’t provide.
Enter Weber, a sturdy regular the second half of 2010-11, who quietly waited 26 days and 10 games to play this season.
“I need him to play before he gets so frustrated we lose him, and that’s the bottom line,” coach Lindy Ruff said prior to the Sabres’ 3-2 loss inside the First Niagara Center. “He’s worked hard. A player gets to the point where you got to get him in. He was an important part of our team. He played good minutes and played hard. They’ve got some players that we’d like to play hard against, so this game was a good fit for him.”
Ruff paired Weber with gritty veteran Robyn Regehr, shaking up all three pairings. Tyler Myers, Regehr’s partner all season, went back beside Andrej Sekera, his defense mate much of last winter. Jordan Leopold, Gragnani’s partner, skated with Christian Ehrhoff.
Why the changes?
“I don’t want to give up the reasons,” said Ruff, who added he did it “for nothing bad.”
Weber, a scratch 20 of the first 22 games last season, was squeezed out by numbers, not poor play. He skated 12:31 Wednesday, registering a minus-2 and fighting Braydon Coburn as the second-period ended.
“To be paired up with Robyn, that’s a pretty big statement to say, ‘Do your own job,’” Weber said Wednesday morning. “Both of us (are) defensive-minded, make sure we take care of some more skilled players.”
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Weber loved watching the 31-year-old Regehr, an NHL regular since 1999-00.
“It’s exciting to be paired up with one of your childhood idols, just to get the opportunity to talk to him,” Weber said.
Meanwhile, Myers and Sekera, two supreme puck-rushers, enjoyed strong chemistry at times last season. Myers snapped out of his wretched early-season funk a year ago with the Slovak by his side.
“We had a fairly long stint together last year,” Myers said. “We’re very familiar. I think we’re both very comfortable jumping back in together.”
While Ruff wouldn’t elaborate on the switches, it’s possible he reunited the two so Myers would begin skating more aggressively. Last week, Ruff said Myers had some “indecision” in his game, “looked tired” and wasn’t reaching spots he should.
So far, Myers has zero goals and only three assists.
“I’ve been having a shutdown mentality,” Myers said. “I think this move is going to get me back in the offense mode. I feel I’ve been jumping in the play as much as I can. With the way Andrej skates … I think we can keep up the intensity, especially in the O-zone.”
Gragnani, whose seven playoff points topped the Sabres, has only three assists in his first season as an NHL regular.
The rookie, a left-handed shot, has been playing on the right side.
“We had him on the right, which is not really a comfortable for him,” Ruff said. “I don’t know if he would admit to that. We tried him over there. It takes a while. It takes more than 10 games to get used to playing the off side. Some guys never like playing the off side.”
Midway through the game, Sabres sniper Thomas Vanek sustained a gash near his right eye during a power-play scrum, forcing him out for about 20 minutes.
Vanek’s vision was blurred briefly and he needed stitches. On his first shift back, he recorded his 16th point on Luke Adam’s goal.
“I was a little scared,” Vanek said. “All of a sudden I couldn’t see, and it felt like someone sliced me.”
Notes: Former Sabres owner Tom Golisano and his managing partner Larry Quinn attended the game. … The Flyers played without star center Daniel Briere (upper body) and defenseman Chris Pronger (eye). … Sabres center Derek Roy manned a point on the power play, which went scoreless in five tries. … Flyers superstar Jaromir Jagr played his first game in Buffalo since March 10, 2008, when he scored in the New York Rangers’ 3-2 win. The 39-year-old Czech, who spent three years playing in the KHL in Russia, recorded a first-period assist, giving him 97 points in 74 games against the Sabres.