For much of the season, Buffalo Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff has dutifully played his normal load of minutes but with dubious results. Then came Saturday night. If you’re looking for a turnaround game, this could be it.
Ehrhoff played a season-high 29 minutes, 19 seconds in Saturday’s shootout loss to Columbus. He assisted on Tyler Myers’ tying goal in the final minute, had four shots on goal, blocked two shots and posted a plus-2 rating for the first time this season.
For the season, Ehrhoff has two goals and 17 assists with a minus-9 rating.
Three times in an 11-game stretch prior to Saturday he had posted a minus-2 game. That included Wednesday’s shootout loss in Toronto, where he struggled with the puck and committed a turnover that directly led to a Leafs goal.
At times, Ehrhoff has seemed worn down and downright uninterested because of the Sabres’ losing season. Interim coach Ted Nolan has a theory that Ehrhoff is actually putting too much pressure on himself looking for offense.
“I’m not trying to press too much. I know the first thought is defending,” Ehrhoff insisted. “Obviously the Toronto game I made a few plays that ended up as turnovers, which wasn’t good. I have to clean those up definitely. I’m not trying to force too much. I know the way we have to play and our limitations. You have to wait for your spots.”
That said, it’s understandable Ehrhoff is feeling some impatience with the Sabres’ rebuilding. Time is an issue for Ehrhoff just as it is for impending free agents Ryan Miller, Matt Moulson and Steve Ott. The difference, of course, is that Ehrhoff has a long-term contract.
Ehrhoff, 31, is in his 10th NHL season. He played in Game Seven of the 2011 Stanley Cup final for Vancouver against Boston and hasn’t been in a playoff game since after signing a 10-year, $40-milion free agent contract with the Sabres a month later.
“I’ve seen it kind of building up in him the last few games,” Nolan said. “I think he’s pushing too hard, trying too hard. He’s got the big contract, the big responsibility, the big label on his name versus just being Chris and just playing.
“He’s got to get back to what makes him effective and not take the world on his shoulders.”
By the end of this season, the Sabres will have already paid $22 million of Ehrhoff’s deal. He has a $4 million cap hit for the next seven years, pretty reasonable for a guy averaging a team-high 24:15 a game.
Ehrhoff averaged 14 goals and 47 points in his last two seasons in Vancouver but scored only five goals in each of his first two years in Buffalo. But he said he’s been pleased to see the team’s outlook improve since Nolan and Pat LaFontaine came aboard in mid-November.
“There is definitely some kind of hope now, but we know we’re still in 30th place and far away from the team we want to be,” he said. “ It’s frustrating at times, but you put that aside and focus on your game every day and don’t let it affect you. I just hope we can improve quickly and find our way out of this hole we’re in.”
Ehrhoff said he was thrilled to see rookies Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov become the talk of the World Junior Championships. Ristolainen scored the winning goal in overtime in the gold-medal game for Finland, while Zadorov was a tournament all-star for Russia.
“It’s great to see we had the top two defensemen in the tournament,” Ehrhoff said. “They have already showed great things of what’s to come, even when they played with us. You have to be careful developing those guys, and I really think Pat LaFontaine and Ted have an eye for that and know what to do. Hopefully we can bring in a few more veteran guys that can help speed up the process.”
Ehrhoff will be taking the Olympic break with his family but certainly wishes he were going to Sochi.
A three-time German Olympian, he’s still struggling with the fact his homeland didn’t qualify this time. One positive, however, was the play of Leon Draisaitl in the World Junior Championships and the likelihood that the 18-year-old German forward will be a top-five pick in this year’s NHL draft.
“That’s so good for German hockey because not being in the Olympics is really tough and not a good situation,” he said. “Exposure is at its highest in the Olympics. It was a great time being around the village and athletes and representing your country. As it gets closer, it’s a little sad for me.”
The Sabres were off Sunday. They return to practice today and host Florida on Tuesday night in First Niagara Center, opening a brutal stretch of six games in 10 days to close the January schedule.
The Sabres have played six consecutive one-goal home games for the first time in the same season since Nov. 21-Dec. 14, 1990. They are 3-1-2 in the current stretch and went 1-3-2 (two ties) in the ’90 run.
The loss marked the first time in 16 meetings the Sabres went into overtime with the Blue Jackets. Buffalo is 5-9-2 all time against Columbus (one tie, one overtime loss).
With the Blue Jackets’ move to the Eastern Conference, this is the first season the Sabres will play them three times. The teams meet again Saturday in Nationwide Arena, where the Sabres are just 1-4-1.