Christian Ehrhoff helped his team recapture some pride, set up two goals and delivered another minute-hogging performance.
He walked away from it with a bruised midsection and battered psyche.
Like the rest of the Buffalo Sabres, Ehrhoff spent Monday recuperating from a bitter 4-3 loss to Pittsburgh. The new collective bargaining agreement requires teams to give their players four days off during every full calendar month, and the Sabres stuck with their plan to take a respite. They’ll return to First Niagara Center today to host the Winnipeg Jets.
Although there’s no telling what to expect from the Sabres – they’ve lost three of four but were minutes away from a weekend sweep of elite teams – it’s nearly certain Ehrhoff’s involvement will be significant.
The defenseman led the Sabres with 24 minutes, 18 seconds of ice time Sunday against Pittsburgh. He’s played at least 23 minutes in 11 straight games and paced the team in all of them.
“I feel comfortable,” said Ehrhoff, whose average of 24:33 ranks 23rd in the NHL. “Obviously, I like playing a lot.”
It works out because the Sabres have needed him on the ice. In an uneven start by the blue-liners, Ehrhoff has been the steadiest performer. He leads the Sabres with a plus-6 rating, is tied for second with eight assists and ranks fifth with 10 points. He’s also the runaway leader in Corsi rating, which tracks how many shots are directed at the opposing goalie versus how many a player’s own goalie faces whenever that player is on the ice.
It’s essentially what the Sabres expected when they acquired him prior to last season and negotiated a 10-year, $40 million contract.
“My game hasn’t changed over the offseason,” he said. “Obviously, having the first year over, I know the guys now and that’s the only difference. Other than that, nothing.”
Ehrhoff was on his way toward a game to remember Sunday before a forgettable ending. He assisted on the Sabres’ first two goals, allowing them to tie the game after falling in a 2-0 hole after 87 seconds. He got plunked in the ribs by Deryk Engelland’s first-period slap shot but came right back.
“I’m sure your cameras can’t see the contusion on his body, but the blocked shot he had, sacrificing himself probably speaks for itself,” left wing Steve Ott said. “The rest of his game was phenomenal, getting shots through, creating chances. Those are the big things we need from him, and he’s very solid.”
Ehrhoff, however, was on the ice when Pittsburgh scored the winner with 2:04 to play.
He was the last Buffalo player to see the puck. He was standing in front of goaltender Ryan Miller and missed the chance to block Paul Martin’s shot.
“I’m in front screening Millsie,” Ehrhoff said. “He doesn’t have a chance on that, and it’s frustrating.
“I couldn’t really move. It went too quick. I wish it would have hit me, but obviously it went in.”
Another area where Ehrhoff has struggled to deliver is on the power play. Buffalo is tied for 27th in the 30-team league with a 13.6 percent success rate. Ehrhoff set up Thomas Vanek’s power-play tally Sunday, but they have just two goals in 34 chances during the last nine games.
During Ehrhoff’s two seasons on a talent-laden Vancouver team, he totaled 12 goals and 51 points on the power play.
He has no goals and three assists this year after a one-goal, 10-assist debut in Buffalo.
“Overall, we can be better there,” he said. “We just need to improve.”
They seemingly get a glorious opportunity tonight. The Jets’ penalty killers rank last at 65.9 percent.
By comparison, Carolina is 29th at 70.9 percent, and Columbus was at the bottom of the NHL last year after killing 76.6 percent.
Like the 6-9-1 Sabres, Winnipeg has struggled early.
The Jets are just 5-8-1 and are playing the first game of a five-game road trip.
“I don’t want to say this is the most important road trip of the season, but the next five or six games are going to be huge,” Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec told reporters in Winnipeg. “If we don’t play well on the road, we could be in big trouble.”
Sabres vs. jets: Faceoff: 7 p.m., First Niagara Center
TV: MSG, Radio: 550 AM
Last season: Jets, 2-1-1