It pains Thomas Vanek to be a spectator, at a time when the Buffalo Sabres desperately need points in order make a charge at the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot. It doesn’t look like the duress will go away any time soon, at least not tonight when the Sabres try to become the first team in a month to beat Pittsburgh Penguins.
Buffalo’s leading scorer and assistant captain reported no setbacks during the team’s practice at First Niagara Center on Monday before departing for the Steel City. In fact, he along with Jhonas Enroth and Nathan Gerbe took the ice roughly 20 minutes before the start of the 30-minute workout.
Interim coach Ron Rolston, however, said after practice it’s highly unlikely the winger will be available at CONSOL Energy Center. Vanek has missed the last three games with an upper-body injury, and Rolston said he is still limited in what he can do on the ice.
“I would assume probably not,” said Rolston of Vanek’s playing status. “He can move a lot more. There are just some things that he can’t do yet that we wouldn’t put him in that situation to play if he can’t do the things he needs to do. It’s going to be probably highly unlikely. … I don’t know if that’s going to change overnight.”
Vanek, who will likely test the injury today during the morning skate, leads the Sabres with 16 goals and 33 points even though he’s missed seven games with an assortment of injuries. He hopes his current ailment doesn’t linger for the rest of the season, but the sting of not being able to take the ice with only 12 games left and 13th-place Buffalo five points out of eighth is a greater source of aggravation.
“Any time you sit out it’s frustrating but now we need wins,” Vanek said. “We need them quick.”
The competitor in him also wants to play tonight simply because he wants to help Buffalo end the Penguins’ 15-game winning streak. Pittsburgh is two wins shy of matching the NHL record for consecutive wins it set back during the 1992-93 season. It would be a morale booster should the Sabres achieve an unlikely win considering the team is stuck in a 0-2-2 rut despite some improved play on its part.
“Anytime you can play against a team that has such a streak going, to go into their building and try to win a game, it’s fun,” Vanek said.
Ville Leino missed practice with an upper-body injury that is believed to be a rib ailment. Rolston wouldn’t confirm that but said he believes the winger’s injury is not the same as the hip problem that has caused him to miss 28 of the team’s 36 games.
“This is a different one,” Rolston said.
Leino, who has six points, was being evaluated by medical personnel during the post-practice media scrum. He scored his first two goals of the season Saturday against Washington – the game in which he suffered the injury. He sat out Sunday night’s shutout loss to Boston.
Sabres winger Steve Ott also sat out practice. Rolston said he gave Ott a maintenance day and expects him to play tonight.
Ott likely was feeling the affects of a nasty hit into the boards he absorbed from giant Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara on Sunday. Ott, who received a diving penalty on the play, left the game briefly. Chara received a two-minute minor for cross-checking. After seeing a replay, Rolston took issue with the call.
“I know Otter plays hard but I’m not sure he’s going to actually do that to get a call,” said Rolston on whether Ott purposely launched himself into the boards head-first just to draw a penalty.
Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers brought some perspective regarding the Penguins’ winning streak: “It’s very impressive. It would probably be more impressive if Chicago didn’t have their [24-game points] streak at the beginning of the year. It’s almost wondering if they can catch that streak, but we’re going to do the best we can to stop it.”
Cody Hodgson has struggled defensively all season and was demoted to the fourth line Sunday as a result of his woes. Did he get the message?
“It’s a work in progress,” Rolston said “He’s a young player. I think Cody’s been really exceptional for us this year with the position that he’s put in on the team as a young player and the responsibility he gets and the role he’s in.
“So it’s just part of the process of just continuing to develop his overall game more than anything.”