In December, Matt Ellis was both captain and hero for the Rochester Americans. The 32-year-old forward had led the team through the first part of the season, then scored the deciding goal in the Amerks’ dramatic shootout victory over Lake Erie in the signature Frozen Frontier event.
The next day, Ellis found himself recalled to the Buffalo Sabres for yet another partial stint in the NHL.
The captain in Rochester became a fourth-line role player in Buffalo. It’s a common road in professional hockey and one that no longer fazes Ellis.
“Throughout my 12 years of pro hockey I’ve ridden this road before,” he said. “You’re up. You’re down. You’re up. You’re down. I’ve learned a lot along the way and one of the things is you focus on the now. You don’t worry about tomorrow. You don’t worry about yesterday. You focus on the now. You bring it every day. You lay it on the line. That’s kind of the attitude you have to take.”
Assuming Ellis is in the lineup tonight when the Sabres host the Columbus Blue Jackets, it will be his 15th game with the big club this season. He has spent parts of seven seasons in the NHL, including playing 72 games for the Sabres in 2009-10.
It’s Ellis’ attitude that has caught the attention of coach Ted Nolan, who believes heavily in earning opportunities and rewarding hard work.
“Matty has that certain intangible that you look for in all athletes,” Nolan said. “It’s the compete level. He works. He may not be the fastest guy in the world or the best stick-handler or the best hitter or the biggest guy, but the one thing he does do is he works and he competes and he pays attention to details. I think that’s why he lasted so long in this profession.”
Hard work helped Ellis score his second goal of the season Wednesday night in Toronto. Playing on the fourth line with Zenon Konopka and John Scott, Ellis scored the Sabres’ first goal early in the second period. The line cycled the puck, kept it in the zone and with Konopka and Scott in front of the net, Ellis took a pass from Tyler Myers and fired the puck in the short side.
“In terms of my line, we did what we do. We keep things simple,” Ellis said. “The recipe is pretty simple for guys who play on the third and fourth line – get pucks out of your end, get pucks into their zone and try to create some zone time and momentum.
“The three of us with Zenon and Johnny, we understand what type of players we are, what we need to do to be successful and help the team. I thought we did a good job with that against Toronto, just being heavy on pucks and controlling the O-zone when we were out there.”
Keeping things simple has been the key to the Buffalo offensive game plan.
The team is averaging a league-worst 1.67 goals a game but busted out for three goals in its last two outings.
“We’re scoring by committee now,” Ellis said. “We’re doing the right things. It’s been a focus in practice. It’s been a focus in all our meetings – getting pucks and bodies to the net. We understand in this locker room sometimes you’ve got to score by committee. … There’s no secret to scoring. When you’re getting pucks to the net and doing things the right way, good things tend to happen. We’re starting to get rewarded for that.”
Ellis is part of the scoring by committee, part of the balanced scoring when third and fourth lines are contributing goals. But his primary role is one of leadership. And while his position on the depth chart may shift depending upon which team he’s playing for, his approach remains consistent and he’s happy to play a supporting role to captain Steve Ott and alternate captain Christian Ehrhoff.
“Obviously some things are a little bit different. In Rochester I was counted upon as the captain, the leader for those guys. It’s something that I was honored to do and I took a lot of pride in that position,” Ellis said.
“Things change but they don’t. I come up here again, it’s a younger team but we have strong leadership with Otter and Christian and some of the guys who have been around. One of the things that’s nice for me is I am one of the older players here and I’ve been around a long time.
“So it’s been easy to come in and carry on and be part of the supporting cast to Steve and some of the other leaders on this team by helping some of the guys along the way and being able to be a little more vocal in the locker room. Just kind of fill that position of one of the elder statesmen around here.”