By Bill Hoppe
Minutes into the Sabres’ 4-3 loss Tuesday, Matt Ellis barreled into the Tampa Bay Lightning zone, beat a defender to the loose puck and immediately dished it in front. A split-second later, Brad Boyes swooped into the slot, grabbed the pass Cody McCormick had deflected and quickly backhanded the puck past goalie Mathieu Garon for his first goal.
It was vintage Boyes. At his best, the 29-year-old winger operates skillfully down low, using his 6-foot, 195-pound body and a quick, hard shot to pile up goals.
“Most of my goals have always been around the net or right in front there or off to the side, close to the paint,” Boyes said Wednesday inside the First Niagara Center after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s tilt against the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets. “I don’t tend to score a lot from the outside. It’s a matter to remind myself to go there and get those opportunities and look for those loose pucks.”
But Boyes, a 43-goal scorer in 2007-08, rarely gets those opportunities these days, let alone scores. Tuesday’s marker was just his first in 19 games dating back to last season. Counting the postseason, he has two goals in his last 26 games.
The same player who compiled 76 goals over a two-year stretch followed up with seasons of 14 and 17.
What’s happened? Tonight will be Boyes’ 501st straight game, so he hasn’t battled injuries. He should be enjoying his prime, not in decline.
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff thinks the tightness of today’s defense-first NHL has hurt the Mississauga, Ont. native.
“It’s a little bit of what has hit other players around the league,” Ruff said. “It’s tougher to score. You don’t get many open shots.”
Naturally, the likable Boyes, who usually has a wide smile etched on his face, is frustrated.
“(I) keep trying to do little things, try to shoot pucks,” said Boyes, who has only 11 shots in eight games. “But then you got to get in areas to shoot pucks and certain spots to do that. So it is (frustrating). I want to continue to keep going … keep going to the net. Hopefully, keep going from here.”
So far, Boyes has only scored consistently with the Sabres once, when he tallied five times in his first 10 games following his late-February arrival from St. Louis.
Injuries forced Boyes to center shortly after that, and his production plummeted. He said he’s more comfortable back on the right wing now. But throughout his scoring struggles, Boyes has maintained a steady game, never looking too shaky or overwhelmed. He’s a plus-5 in 29 Sabres contests.
“That’s the thing,” Boyes said. “I feel alright out there. (Tuesday) we had the puck, it was of a matter just kind of putting it in. (Before) I hit the post or (was) putting it right in the goalie’s stomach or just missing the net. Sometimes it’s just an inch or two that makes a difference.”
Right now, Boyes, who started the season with Tyler Ennis and Ville Leino, is experiencing two wildly different opportunities. He’s skating on the fourth line, a far cry from when he comprised part of an elite scoring line beside Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk with the Blues.
Still, Ruff recently put Boyes on the first power-play unit, hoping he could spark something (one of last 16). He hadn’t played on the man advantage all season. Now he’s up front with Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek.
“It’s a big boost to my confidence to play with those guys,” said Boyes, who has 44 career power-play goals. “Those guys are good players. We’ve got a very deep team. I’m a guy that history throughout my career has always been on the power play and always produced. …
“That opportunity, that’s what I’m looking to do, take advantage, get in that rhythm again, hopefully start feeling the puck a lot more and getting those better opportunities that will roll into the five-on-five play.”
Don’t discount Boyes’ regular line, though. Ellis and McCormick work extremely hard and skate well. Tuesday’s goal illustrated that. If they can win battles and Boyes gets open in front, the trio could create some nice secondary scoring.
“Elly and myself are going to be the ones kind of wreaking a little havoc and trying to get some loose pucks,” McCormick said. “Brad’s a guy that puts himself in a great spot to get chances. I think that’s how it kind of created for us (Tuesday).”
Notes: Backup goalie Jhonas Enroth will likely start tonight or Saturday against Florida. … The Sabres, losers of two straight, haven’t dropped three in a row since Feb. 16-20. … Columbus has a league-worst three points (1-7-1).