By Bill Hoppe
BUFFALO — Some players thrive with extra ice time. The constant action and extra pressure helps them find a groove.
Don’t count Sabres defenseman Mike Weber among them. The 24-year-old struggled when a slew of injuries pushed him over 20 minutes a night.
Weber played 19:58 or more in 12 of 13 games recently, including a career-high 26:58 on Jan. 14. He compiled a minus-4 rating one night and a minus-8 overall. The tough, stay-at-home defender even played the power play.
Now that the blue line’s back at full strength, Weber’s minutes have leveled off to about 17 and he’s playing a steadier, tighter game.
“That’s been the biggest, to get back to playing the minutes he seems suited to, that’s he’s not trying to do too much, that when he gets out there he’s fresh,” coach Lindy Ruff said Tuesday prior to the Sabres’ 4-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils inside the First Niagara Center. “His game is a lot of times energy. It’s playing hard in a short period of time, and I think when we’ve overplayed him he’s just tried too much.
“He’s overhandled some situations. He tried to make plays into areas he doesn’t need to make plays. I think that part of his game has really cleaned up.”
Weber, whose cross-checking penalty Tuesday led to Petr Sykora’s winner, agreed playing less has helped him.
“It’s just getting guys back healthy and focusing in on what my job is, what my responsibilities are – and that’s just a solid defender and move the puck quick and do all the little things right like blocking shots, trying to play physical,” he said.
The depleted defense corps forced Weber “to play out of my comfort zone a little bit.”
“You do some things that I normally wouldn’t be doing,” he said. “But they know it came from a good place. I’m trying to help my team and help the boys win. Now that we got the guys back (I’m) settling into my role again and playing solid.”
Weber had been playing beside Andrej Sekera, his partner on and off for five seasons, for about three weeks.
But Ruff switched up a couple of pairs Tuesday and dressed Marc-Andre Gragnani, a healthy scratch six straight games, as the seventh defenseman because Christian Ehrhoff was questionable with flu. Forward Matt Ellis was scratched.
Weber played with Ehrhoff. Sekera went beside Tyler Myers.
Gragnani, meanwhile, skated just 5:12 with a couple of partners and also played the power play. With only 11 forwards, one was double-shifted, mostly Tyler Ennis.
Why did Gragnani, a team-best plus-10, sit so long?
“He understands some of the battle wasn’t there when he was playing,” Ruff said. “We feel with a bigger effort he can easily fill in and be a reliable defenseman for us.”
Gragnani added: “I had talks with (assistant coach) James Patrick and he told me he thought I was playing well before I started not to play. We had numbers back, so that’s just how it is sometimes.”
He had never sat so long or been a healthy scratch, so he “didn’t know how to approach or deal with it.”
“I dealt with it,” Gragnani said. “Obviously, it’s not easy. You’re here to play hockey. When you don’t play, you feel like there’s something missing in your life. I kept working hard and stayed positive and tried not to show at the rink how I felt. You don’t want to be like that and pout. It brings everybody down. So I think I did all right and hopefully I learn from it.”
Remember Steve “Big Bear” Bernier, the winger the Sabres received from San Jose in the Brian Campbell trade four years ago this month?
Bernier electrified in his Buffalo debut, tallying two goals and three points. He then scored once in the final 16 games.
The Sabres dealt him that offseason to Vancouver, where he played two seasons. He spent last year in Florida.
The 26-year-old’s on the Devils now, just up from a 17-game stint in Albany, his first AHL action in five years.
Sabres winger Cody McCormick (upper body) missed his second game.