Just one day after Saturday's matchup with the Boston Bruins was postponed due to COVID-19 protocols, the Buffalo Sabres returned to the ice at KeyBank Center for practice ahead of Monday's matchup with the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
The National Hockey League made the announcement on Friday that Saturday afternoon's game with the Bruins would not be played as scheduled after four Boston players entered the league's COVID-19 protocols after being deemed as close contacts to one player who entered the protocols just before Thursday night's game in Buffalo.
Like the Bruins on Thursday morning, the Sabres canceled their morning skate after the team had a hockey staff member enter the league's protocols. Luckily for the organization, no one else has been forced to enter the NHL's COVID-19 Protocols since Thursday, even after playing the Bruins later that evening.
With the team returning to practice on Sunday, interim head coach Don Granato feels the group is confident that they are safe to return to work and carry on with the season as scheduled.
"I don't see any concern at this point, certainly none that's going to disrupt what we're doing and what we want to do and lay out as a staff," Granato said following Sunday's practice.
"Initially I had concern with [the group's concerns about Thursday and Friday]. That was what I wanted to see the answer in, and I was looking for that answer through body language and response. It was great. We spoke of it, we informed them what had happened, that our game had been canceled, and that was in the middle of [Friday's] practice. I asked what the comfort level was to continue, because when this happened weeks ago everybody had great concern of, 'Is this within our group now?' and where's it going? The players collectively wanted to continue practicing, and they continued to practice at a very intense level. So that was a great response from the standpoint of if you wanted them to be focused and engaged, they were."
The players were back working at a really good pace again for Sunday's session. It was another high-tempo practice for the group, as they are looking to snap a 13-game winless streak that has sent the 2020-21 season into a complete tailspin.
For the first time in a while, the Sabres were able to have more than just one day off from game action, given that Saturday's game with the Bruins was postponed. It allowed the players to get a bit more of a refresher heading into Monday's action with the Rangers.
"It felt really good getting on the ice, getting a nice full practice in," said forward Tage Thompson. "We've had two full practice days, plus a day in-between yesterday, so there's no excuses heading into tomorrow. We've had two really good days at practice and some time in-between there to rest. I think just mentally gearing up for tomorrow is the focus going in, but physically, we're ready to go."
For new interim assistant coach Dan Girardi, Sunday was really his first good chance to get to really know his group of players he'll be working with for the rest of the season. The longtime NHL defenseman did not get the chance to coach Thursday night due to quarantine issues, but he's already looking forward to being behind the bench for his first game on Monday.
"I think it's a good opportunity for me to come in," Girardi said following Sunday's practice. "A guy that's only been out of the game a year-and-a-half and has followed it really closely. A fresh perspective that's from the outside and someone the guys can kind of relate to. A lot of the the guys obviously know me from playing against me and kind of know what attitude I bring and how I played. I do like to keep it light a little bit; obviously the situation we come into here is a little tough, but you can't worry about all that with what happened.
"We're very excited about the opportunity that's coming Monday at MSG [Madison Square Garden]. It's kind of a fresh little start here. ... I think it's the first time we'll have the full staff on the bench, and have a good feeling here after a good two days of practice, really nailing some things home."
Girardi was hired as a player development coach for the Sabres just this past offseason after recently retiring in 2019. The 36-year-old played in 927 career games with the Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning, where he was well-known for his gritty defensive play and willingness to block shots.
That style of play, plus the experiences he had to get to the NHL and sustain a long career at the top level, is just part of what Girardi believes will help him transition to a coaching career in the NHL.
"I've kind of been through everything," Girardi said. "The way I played, how I carried myself in the [locker] room, a teammate first, didn't worry about all my individual stuff, really thought about the team game; all those things, when you're a good teammate, word gets around and you're able to talk to guys. Obviously I'm the assistant coach now, an interim assistant coach, but I'm talking to guys now like I'm just out there with them at practice and talking about random things, chirp here and there. But just get a good feeling between all of us and get a better feeling back in the building and in the room, a positive atmosphere. We're going to have to put the work boots on to get out of this thing with everyone. Myself, Matt [Ellis], Donnie [Granato], we're going to have to pull these guys in the right direction."
That type of atmosphere that Girardi brings to the ice as a coach is something that Granato believes will be a tremendous help to not only the players but to the entire group going forward.
"If you think about it from my side, when I'm pushing and demanding, he is fresh in his mind what it was like after 25 games and after two games in two nights, what the body feels like, what the mind may feel like with respect to any demand we may put on," Granato said of his assistant coach. "He's a great resource for our entire staff, as well as the players themselves. I will absolutely be leaning on him, in that regard.
"You want to put people in positions of strength, whether it'd be players or any members of your staff. ... I feel his strengths are the ability to have a stronger connection to those players in our locker room who are blocking shots, that are sore after blocking shots, and making plays. He is a great addition to our staff."
While he has not gotten much time to work with the defensive group in place in Buffalo, on top of the group changing a bit due to injury and other circumstances, Girardi believes there's a lot of potential going forward for a positive turnaround.
"I think there's a really good mix of talent. We have eight solid [defensemen], which not a lot of teams have that ability to maybe interchange a guy in and out if things aren't going great," Girardi said. "I think with the guys we have; obviously [Jake] McCabe's injury earlier is a big miss for us, but we've had guys who have come up; [Jacob] Bryson has come in and played great. It's going to be finding the right pairs, finding the right chemistry, and that's something that I'll get better at as time goes, but I really like our [defensive] corps.
"The way we're going to try to be playing is everyone's going to be on the same page, and it should make everyone's job easier that everyone's going to know where they're supposed to be. We're pretty mobile back there, which is nice, so we're able to close better gaps, hopefully, and create some more offense."
Meanwhile, the Sabres could potentially get some good news later in the week with the status of starting goalie Linus Ullmark, who has been out of the lineup since the start of this 13-game winless streak with a lower-body injury.
"Linus, at this point, we're planning on him joining us on the trip, which is great news," said Granato. "We need to integrate him into practice, at some point. That's the next step here. At that point, we can evaluate when a potential return is. That's all good news with Linus."
Ullmark's potential return could spark a nice turnaround from the team, which has gotten some questionable goaltending in this stretch. Whether it was Carter Hutton or Jonas Johansson in goal, the team has gone 0-11-2 with 54 goals-against and just 20 goals scored. Not every loss has been on the goaltending, but there have been plenty of instances where when the team needs a big save, it hasn't come from whoever is in net.
However, the team will no longer have the services of Johansson after he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday for a sixth round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft.
With Johansson off to Colorado, the team has officially called up goalie Dustin Tokarski from the taxi squad, while also loaning goalie Michael Houser to the taxi squad. Houser was signed to a NHL contract on Friday.
Also, with the Rochester Americans back to practice after having to quarantine due to a minor COVID-19 outbreak in the organization, the Sabres were able to call up Steven Fogarty on Sunday and assign him to the taxi squad.
Here's how the lines looked on Sunday:
Hall - Cozens - Reinhart
Olofsson - Staal - Thompson
Skinner - Lazar - Mittelstadt
Asplund - Sheahan - Okposo
Bryson - Ristolainen
Dahlin - Miller
Jokiharju - Montour
Irwin - Davidson
Tobias Rieder and Cody Eakin were the extra skaters, while taxi squaders C.J. Smith and Steven Fogarty also rotated in.
The Sabres will travel to New York City on Monday morning ahead of the evening's matchup with the Rangers. It'll be a 7 p.m. ET faceoff at Madison Square Garden with pregame coverage with Mike Schopp and the Bulldog on WGR getting underway at 6 p.m. ET.