Thomas Vanek averages more than a point per game against Toronto. He should get a chance to continue his success tonight.
The Sabres expect their top player to return after a one-game absence caused by a muscle strain. Vanek got through an optional practice Monday after missing Sunday’s game in Washington.
“I’m optimistic about him playing,” said coach Lindy Ruff, whose team hosts the Maple Leafs in First Niagara Center.
Vanek said he felt a lot better Monday than he did the day before. He tested the injury Sunday morning and quickly realized he couldn’t skate well enough to contribute.
“There’s no point of playing at 70 or 80 percent,” Vanek said. “Obviously, it’s frustrating because you want to be out there and you want to contribute and help the team. At the same time, it’s a short season, a lot of games, you need to be smart. I didn’t feel like I could help the team, and that was the ultimate decision.”
Vanek was injured Friday against Carolina when Alexander Semin tripped him from behind. The unsuspecting left winger had his feet fly out from under him and landed awkwardly. He returned to the game but skipped practice Saturday and the game Sunday.
Vanek leads Buffalo with nine points, including a team-high six assists. He has 22 goals and 46 points in 45 games against Toronto, including an assist last week during the Sabres’ 2-1 road win.
“I felt a lot better, a lot smoother,” Vanek said, “and hopefully it will make a little more progress.”
Ruff and seven players stayed off the ice Monday. Defenseman Robyn Regehr and forwards Jason Pominville, Cody Hodgson, Steve Ott, Tyler Ennis and Jochen Hecht rested, while injured Ville Leino also avoided the on-ice session.
“I went around to different players that played a lot of minutes and got some recommendations from trainers and told them not to go out,” Ruff said. “We’ve got numerous guys with muscle strains and light groins.”
The coach was worried about starting the season with five games in eight days, and the anxiousness was warranted judging by the bumps and bruises.
“You’d like to practice a few things, but with the schedule the way it is you can’t,” Ruff said. “Coming out of five games in eight nights you didn’t know what to expect. Well, now we know. It’s trying to get them rested and ready to play a game.”
Leino is still rehabbing the hip injury that has kept him out of the opening five games.
“He’s just in the OK category,” Ruff said. “Even with the new treatment, progress seems slow. He hasn’t skated anything of substance now for quite awhile.”
Forward Cody McCormick (finger) isn’t ready to make his season debut, but he’s hopeful of at least getting a timetable for returning in the coming days.
“Everything’s going well out there, just making sure when I come back I don’t miss any time after that,” he said. “The biggest thing is probably the fighting. It probably affects the fingers the most, so it’s something along those lines.”
Former Sabres forward Clarke MacArthur is expected to miss tonight’s game. The Leafs alternate captain lost the fingernail on one of his pinkie fingers during a slash Saturday against the New York Rangers.
“It’s very painful,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle told reporters in Toronto. “Anybody who’s ever had their nail removed, sawed off of your finger, it’s not a pretty sight. But in some ways it’s a blessing because usually the nail will hold the swelling. This allows the fluids, I guess, to drain.”