By Bill Hoppe
Prior to breaking his wrist Nov. 19, Tyler Myers had turned a corner, morphing from a healthy scratch back into an aggressive, physical defenseman in just a few days.
But after missing 19 games, could the Sabres star really return at that same elite level Friday in Carolina?
“Myers really hadn’t looked like he missed a game,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said about Myers’ play in the 4-2 loss.
The 21-year-old skated 23:08 against the Hurricanes, mostly beside rookie Brayden McNabb. Myers created Thomas Vanek’s first-period goal by carrying the puck into the Carolina zone, a skill the Sabres sorely missed during the 48-day absence.
“I give him A-plus for impact, his skating alone, the joining on the offense alone, even on Van’s goal to back the other team off,” Ruff said Saturday morning inside the First Niagara Center prior to the Sabres’ 2-1 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets. “He hit a post. He was involved in three or four other offensive situations.
“I’m hoping there’s no drop off. The second game back sometimes you don’t have quite the legs.”
But Myers still had them Saturday, pinching to the crease and redirecting Jason Pominville’s shot on the power play 11:08 into the second period.
Myer credited the quick return to skating throughout his recovery. He wasn’t limited in any way physically Friday, either.
“There’s aches and pains, but as long as I know it’s healed those can be worked through,” said Myers, who skated 25:09 against the Jets.
Getting scratched for the first time Nov. 14 clearly jolted Myers, who had been minus-3 twice in the three games while generating little offense. He was also on the ice when Boston’s Milan Lucic got away with plowing goalie Ryan Miller.
Myers tallied his first two goals and threw his 6-foot-8 frame around in his comeback game Nov. 16 against New Jersey. He concentrated on bringing that same style again Friday.
“I really focused on the way I approaches those last two or three games before the injury,” Myers said. “I definitely think I’m starting to figure out I have to play a certain way to be successful.”
He enjoyed playing beside the 6-foot-4 McNabb, a budding star who possesses many of Myers’ talents.
“He moves really well. He moves the puck quick. He sees the ice really well,” Myers said. “It’s easy to play with a guy like that. The fact that he has a big, physical game, I think we complement each other really well.”
With Sabres center Derek Roy out a “period of time” after suffering a possible arm or shoulder injury Friday, Ruff put Ville Leino (broken foot, 10 games) back in a bit earlier than expected.
The Sabres are still thin up front, especially at center.
“He was close. Some of it is necessity,” Ruff said. “Some of it is if you ask Ville, he says he’s ready. ... We need him back.”
Ruff said about Roy’s injury: “Initially, we don’t feel it’s too bad. It’s going to be more than days.”
Incredibly, the Sabres almost lost another key piece Saturday, as leading scorer Thomas Vanek missed most of the first period after absorbing a Myers slap shot in the midsection.
Vanek returned for the second period, however.
Meanwhile, Cody McCormick, a healthy scratch the past two games, returned, playing his 300th NHL game.
The Sabres also sent two rookies — defenseman T.J. Brennan and winger Zack Kassian — back to Rochester before the game.
Not so fast, the NHLPA said. The NHL’s four-conference realignment plan has been scrapped for 2012-13 after the union failed to give its consent by a Friday deadline.
“From our stance, it was unanimous we didn’t agree with it,” said Sabres player representative Paul Gaustad, who discussed the issues on a conference call last week. “It wasn’t surprising.”
What didn’t the union agree with?
Two conferences had seven teams and two had eight. The top four from each make the playoffs, meaning two conferences had an easier chance at a coveted postseason spot.
“The biggest issue was the playoff format and the travel,” Gaustad said. “It has to be fair for everybody. For our situation ... that teams play an entire season for a shot at the playoffs and one conference to be harder to make the playoffs than others just didn’t sit well with the players.”
Also, under the proposed format, every team played each other home and away, regardless of conference. The NHL never supplied the union with a sample schedule, Gaustad said.
“We didn’t see a lot of data,” he said. “We didn’t see a lot of stuff supporting why they did certain things. So that was another issue.”
Many believe the rejection is simply the first shot being fired from new union leader Donald Fehr ahead of CBA talks. The current deal expires Sept. 15.
Gaustad said that if the NHLPA believed the realignment plan was sensible, it would’ve been approved.
Jets player rep Ron Hainsey said about realignment’s relation to the CBA: “I think the two are unrelated, but now they will be related from how I understood the wording of everything (Friday) night. It looks like it will be one big issue now.”