They skated up and down the ice, but deliberately. They shifted their weight, thought about their knee positions and skated in circles.
With four days in between games, the Buffalo Sabres had the opportunity to do something as a team usually reserved for training camp — hold a power skating session.
For about 45 minutes Monday morning the team worked with skating coach Dawn Braid, going through drills and working with a primary focus.
“We had a focus today and it was just about getting deeper into their knees, loading their legs to get more power, getting a more stable base,” said Braid, who was hired by the Sabres in 2011. “If you improve that part of your skating, it’s going to make a difference. Is it going to make a difference in a game this week? No. It takes time. But again, it’s a team effort out there, which I think is important and just trying something a little bit different right now.”
The approach may be different, but the message from the top down is the same. Interim coach Ted Nolan emphasizes work and earning ice time.
“What we want to do here is create a very competitive environment,” Nolan said. “It’s not like bantam hockey where you pay your tuition and you get to play. You have to earn it.”
Part of that competitive environment involves working on the fundamentals of the game and reinforcing (or in some cases creating) good habits.
“We’re all creatures of habit,” Nolan said. “We had to change a few things that we’ve been doing and just get used to doing it on a daily basis. I think that game against Toronto we played really well and then in New Jersey we slipped off a little bit again. Just trying to get that consistent work ethic every day. The only way you can do it is to consistently work.”
Consistent hard work is a theme around First Niagara Center along with hockey fundamentals. Obviously, skating is about as fundamental to the game as you can get.
Braid has worked with the Sabres and the Rochester Americans for the last three seasons. In addition, she works individually with players both on the ice and in video sessions.
She has worked for 20 years as a high performance technical power skating instructor. She has worked with NHL teams, including the Sabres, Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs, and individual players, notably Michael Peca and John Tavares.
Matt Moulson trained individually with Braid during his years with Tavares and the New York Islanders and has noticed the difference the skating sessions have made in his game.
“I’m still not the fastest guy but I was even worse before,” Moulson said. “She helped me a lot. As an athlete you’re always looking for an edge. In our world, getting an edge may be a little thing, a split second to get yourself an extra half a step. That could turn into a big advantage. It’s always good to work on little things and skating is obviously one of the most important things in hockey.”
For Brian Flynn, who has worked with Braid over the last two summers, the little things include widening his base and being strong on the puck. And sessions like Monday become important in the middle of the season when it’s easy to fall back into bad habits.
“When you’re playing games with practice, you’re not really thinking about your skating stride,” Flynn said. “You’re more focused on the play but I think once in a while you can get some good reminders.”
The occasional reminder is all well and good, but Braid points out that repetition is the key to creating better habits and maintaining your strength as the game wears on and fatigue starts to set in.
“The important part to all this repetition and making something a habit is deliberate practice, practice with passion, and practice with a purpose,” Braid said.
“Skating can be what changes how you pass. Skating can be what gets you to that puck quicker which creates possession in the game,” Braid said. “It’s not just skating. There’s so much more to it, but obviously with skating being what they’re doing out there, the better you skate, the better you pass, the better the team is, the stronger the team is.”
After Steve Bernier scored the game-winning goal in overtime for New Jersey in the Devils’ 1-0 win over the Sabres Saturday, there was a bit of an altercation between Adam Henrique of the Devils and Steve Ott. Henrique, it seemed, tried to head butt the Sabres captain who offered a feisty response with a few punches.
“I think the film kind of speaks for itself,” Ott said when asked about the head butt. “It was a pretty good attempt. He just grazed my chin more or less, or the side of my face and it kind of fired me up to say the least. Other than that it was over with in a pretty quick hurry. Obviously I think I got a pretty good punch in there so we’ll call it even.”
Alexander Sulzer did not participate in practice. Nolan said the defenseman was given a “maintenance day.” Nolan also said that forward Cody McCormick is ready to return to the Sabres lineup.