Mikhail Grigorenko has a lot to prove to the Sabres’ organization. He’ll get a chance during Buffalo’s final three games.
The team’s top prospect will return to the lineup tonight when the Sabres host Winnipeg in First Niagara Center. He has dressed 22 times for the Sabres, but he hasn’t played since March 12 after getting sent back to his junior team for the playoffs.
“I feel good now,” Grigorenko said Sunday. “I have some experience, had good playoffs and got my confidence back.
“When I first came here when the season started, I was a little nervous and stuff. I didn’t have a lot of confidence. After I went to juniors and came back here again, I felt more comfortable. I felt like it’s my team and I belong here.”
The 18-year-old’s first stint with the Sabres could be classified as a disappointment. The 12th overall draft pick recorded a goal and four assists, but he skated just 9:44 per game and was usually in a fourth-line role.
“For a guy like Mikhail who will be in there again, with another opportunity to do what he needs to do to be a member of this team and be somebody who can help us be successful, it’ll be an opportunity for him,” said interim coach Ron Rolston, who had the center between Jochen Hecht and Nathan Gerbe during practice in First Niagara Center.
“We’re going to see these next three games with Mikhail. He’s got skill. You watch him out there, he’s got big skill. It’s going to be all, just like the rest of them that we ask them every game and every practice, just the compete. So we’re going to see the next three games where that’s at and then continue the evaluation.”
Grigorenko, who was recalled from Quebec on Tuesday, will take the lineup spot of Patrick Kaleta. The right winger blocked a shot off his right hand Friday and is out for at least one game and possibly more.
The Sabres’ practice was their first gathering since officially being eliminated from playoff contention with Friday’s 8-4 loss to the New York Rangers.
“It’s definitely tough because we still had hope and we were trying to do everything we could to finish strong and try and get in the playoffs,” defenseman Andrej Sekera said. “Even though we aren’t in the playoffs, we want to win every game when we play. That’s why you’re in this sport — because you want to be a winner. We want to go out, do our best and try to win these last three games.”
The Sabres have extra incentive tonight. They lost, 4-1, to the Jets two weeks ago in a game that put a severe dent in their playoff chase. Winnipeg is three points behind the eighth-place Rangers for the final playoff spot, and Buffalo can get payback by trying to ruin the Jets’ season.
“I guess you can say jealousy breeds a little bit of frustration, and if they have a chance at this, we can possibly knock them off and make them feel the same way that we feel,” left wing Steve Ott said. “Personally and pride-wise, I would like to do that to another team so they can have this same feeling.”
Rolston is using the lockout, which wiped out the first four months of the season, as a motivational tool to keep his eliminated club focused.
“Guys were dying to play,” Rolston said. “We talked about guys were dying to play games when the lockout was on. Everyone was dying to play hockey. Now they still have hockey to play. There’s three games and they have to be excited about it.”