There are still points to try to earn, a long shot playoff berth for the Buffalo Sabres to push for. But the last 10 games are about much more than that. It can be the first look at a new core.
A player like Christian Ehrhoff is on a long-term contract. So is Tyler Myers. And others like Tyler Ennis, Cody Hodgson and Andrej Sekera can all start to take much more of the reins than they have in the past.
“I was just thinking about this the other day,” Ennis said prior to Sunday’s game against the New Jersey Devils.. “The first team I was on here when we went to the playoffs (2009-10), there’s just a handful of guys left. It’s kind of strange.
“It’s definitely got to be a group of us now stepping up to make a difference. It’s there for us. I know we’re a committed, focused group and that’s not going to be an issue. We just have to take advantage of it and get this team where it needs to be.”
“The next wave of players is coming,” said Steve Ott, often mentioned as a captain possibility next season. “That’s kind of going to be their team going forward here. Even when I’m gone, you’d hope these guys will be here for a long time and continue to be solid hockey players. It’s their turn to take the next step to become leaders on and off the ice.”
Myers is in the first year of his seven-year extension and has struggled for large stretches of the season. But he knows the trades of Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr off the blue line and captain Jason Pominville sends a message that the younger players need to seize control.
“It’s certainly leaning towards that direction it seems,” Myers said. “It’s a much younger team already with the three guys that we lost. There’s always talk and rumors about Thomas Vanek and [Ryan Miller] and their situations too. We’ll cross that bridge when that time comes.
“There’s guys in the room that are going to have to step up, not only on the ice but to take a leadership position in the room.”
Interim coach Ron Rolston said watching the dressing room dynamic will be one of the unique elements of the final 10 games.
“They’re in a situation now where for them it’s to be the next core of leaders coming up for us,” Rolston said. “And before you can be a leader in any capacity, you’ve got to be consistent. You’ve got to take care of your own game because if you’re not, there’s not a lot of people who are going to follow you if you can’t be consistent.”
While the Leopold and Regehr trades were pretty much expected, Myers admitted he was shaken by the loss of Pominville, a player he’s seen every day since his NHL career began in 2009.
“It was definitely pretty strange not seeing him come into the rink the next morning,” Myers said. “I know what he meant to this organization being here so long, being the person he was and the player he was.”
After a brutal start to the season, Myers entered Sunday plus-3 in the last four games and averaging more than 25 minutes of ice time in them. Ennis, meanwhile, was trying to shake a seven-game goal drought.
“You have to worry about getting better,” Ennis said. “You look at the standings and you know where you are. There’s been a lot of changes all year but you have to get better in areas every day. You improve in those areas and as a whole everything starts to get better. I think we’re seeing a little bit of that right now.”
Thomas Vanek missed his sixth straight game with an upper body muscle strain and did not even take the morning skate but Rolston said the Sabres’ leading scorer has not suffered a setback.
“We wanted to give him today off completely because he’s been out there a lot,” Rolston said. “Just wanted to give him the complete rest day off so he’ll be back out there [today].”
Rolston said he’s still holding out hope Vanek can play Tuesday in Winnipeg. The Sabres have no extra players on hand so the only ones not in the lineup Sunday were Vanek and fellow injured forward Ville Leino.
Former Sabres defenseman Henrik Tallinder was a scratch for the Devils after playing the last four games. Tallinder, in the third season of a four-year, $13.5 million contract, has one goal and three assists in 18 games with a plus-3 rating.
Goaltender Matt Hackett, acquired from Minnesota in the Pominville trade, had a huge debut Sunday for the Rochester Amerks in a 3-2 shootout win over Albany. Hackett made 39 saves in the game and stopped all three Albany attempts in the shootout.
Zemgus Girgensons, Buffalo’s second No. 1 pick last June, scored a short-handed goal with 4:25 left to force overtime. Girgensons has five goals for the Amerks.