For the first time in 15 games, Victor Olofsson will be in the lineup for the Buffalo Sabres.
"It's been tough being on the sideline, but I've been trying to stay patient and I'm really eager to get back into the game," Olofsson said following some team meetings on Thursday morning.
The 24-year-old was having an excellent rookie campaign for the Sabres before his injury with 16 goals and 19 assists for 35 points in 42 games. At the time of his injury, Olofsson led all rookies in the league in goals and points. Even after being out of the lineup, his 16 goals still sits tied for second with Dallas Stars forward Denis Gurianov and behind Chicago Blackhawks forward Dominik Kubalik, who has 22. Olofsson's 35 points also has him now in a tie for fourth place in rookie scoring with Kubalik and just behind Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes (44), Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar (42) and Montreal Canadiens forward Nick Suzuki (36).
Olofsson will be able to try and add to his totals this season as he is expected to slot back into the lineup alongside his usual linemates in Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. He is also expected to assume his role back on the top-power play unit on the off-wing.
"That feels great," Olofsson said. "Hopefully I can pick up where I left off, so I'm just really excited."
This injury was the first of its kind for Olofsson that kept him off the ice for this long of a period of time. He says that it was definitely a learning experience, and one that he had some guidance with along the way.
"It's been something new and that's something I've got to learn too," Olofsson said. "It's been a good progress, and I've been learning a lot.
"There's a few guys that's been through kind of the same things. They've been telling me to just be patient and not try to rush back into it too quick. That's advice I've been taking with me, but I feel ready now and I'll be feeling really good on the ice."
"[He handled it> extremely positively, just because he's that kind of a person, but I think he also had an opportunity to take a breath and watch the game from the outside," Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger said of his young winger following Thursday morning's team meetings. "I feel that because of the hockey intelligence that he has, he's going to come out of this actually an even better player. So he's done a fabulous job, he's remained close to the team the whole time. He said that too that it was important for him to stay socially connected. But also the hockey processing that he's done in his mind I think will help him to just confirm the great game that he has."
Leading up to the injury, Olofsson had struggled a bit, going four straight games without scoring a point. His current five-game goalless drought has not been the longest of the season, but it is one that he certainly will look to break out of once he gets back on the ice on Thursday.
Olofsson had been skating with his teammates since Saturday at practice, but did not return to participating fully until Wednesday.
The Sabres will also get forward Kyle Okposo back in the lineup on Thursday after he missed six games with an upper-body injury. The 31-year-old suffered his injury on his first shift of Jan. 30's matchup with the Canadiens, where he only played 3:47 of the first period before exiting the game.
Okposo's season has been less than ideal for the veteran winger with just five goals and seven assists for 12 points in 40 games. His play has been better while skating on a line with forwards Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson, and that's where he will likely end up on Thursday night.
He had returned to practice on Monday with the team before also taking part in his first full practice on Wednesday. Okposo is returning a week ahead of his original diagnosis that expected to miss 2-3 weeks of action.
However, the Sabres will be without Marcus Johansson on Thursday as he remains day-to-day with an upper-body injury. The 29-year-old missed Wednesday's practice with, what the team called, a maintenance day. It was Krueger who confirmed that he was dealing with his injury.
The Sabres last played the Blue Jackets back on Feb. 1 when Eichel helped lift the Sabres to a 2-1 overtime win at KeyBank Center with a goal 36 seconds into the bonus round of hockey. Since then, Buffalo has gone 2-2-1, while the Blue Jackets have gone 3-1-1 and have earned a 12-point cushion on the Sabres in the playoff picture.
The Blue Jackets are currently sitting as the top team in the Eastern Conference Wild Card standings with 70 points, while the second spot is occupied by the Philadelphia Flyers with 69 points. The Sabres are going to need to find a way to string together some much needed wins in the final 25 games of the season to have any chance of getting into contention for a playoff spot.
Buffalo enters the game 10 points back of the Toronto Maple Leafs for third in the Atlantic Division standings, while the Boston Bruins (82 points) and Tampa Bay Lightning (79 points) are beginning to run away with the top-two spots in the division.
Eichel has still been producing points, eclipsing the 70-point mark for a second consecutive season on Tuesday night, but is currently riding a goalless drought of five games. His last goal came against the Blue Jackets with his overtime winner. The Buffalo captain is riding a three-game point streak with four assists over that period, and has only been held pointless in four of his last 38 games.
In his career against the Blue Jackets, Eichel has four goals and nine assists for 13 points in 14 games over his five seasons in the National Hockey League.
The 23-year-old is also three assists away from picking up 200 assists in his NHL career.
Reinhart scored once again for the Sabres on Tuesday night with his game-winning tally in the third period against the Detroit Red Wings. The 23-year-old is on pace to eclipse the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career and register a career-high in points with 68.
Carter Hutton will get his second consecutive start for the Sabres after beating the Red Wings on Tuesday night. He made 27 saves on 29 shots faced to earn his second straight win, as well as his third win in four starts. Over that stretch of starts, Hutton has played well with a 2.84 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage. The only blemish came in a 6-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche where he surrendered five goals on 13 shots faced.
Krueger said that the team would skate 12 forwards and seven defensemen for the pregame warmups before making a decision on the lineup. However, both defenseman Lawrence Pilut and Zach Bogosian were skating with goalie Jonas Johansson as the extras in the morning, which likely makes both of them the healthy scratches.
With the expected return of Okposo and Olofsson to the lineup for the Sabres on Thursday, the team assigned forward Scott Wilson back to the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League.
As for the Blue Jackets, they come to Buffalo off a 2-1 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday night where they gave up two goals to forward Nikita Kucherov, including the overtime winner just 31 seconds into overtime.
The injuries have become such a problem that the team had to call up 2018 first round pick Liam Foudy from the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League on an emergency basis. The 20-year-old played his first NHL game on Monday, playing 10:23 with two shots on goal and a hit.
The Blue Jackets' leading scorer this season is forward Pierre-Luc Dubois, who has played in every game this season and has registered 43 points. His 26 assists this season leads the team, while his 17 goals are currently tied with defenseman Zach Werenski for second on the team.
Leading Columbus in goal scoring this season is winger Oliver Bjorkstrand, who has scored 18 goals this season, including two goals this season against the Sabres.
Goaltending has been a huge reason for Columbus' success this season between Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.
Korpisalo is just coming off a a knee injury that he suffered on Dec. 29 in a shootout loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. He had made 32 appearances prior to the injury with a 17-10-4 record with a 2.49 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage. He has been traveling with the team, but he has yet to make a start since his injury.
Merzlikins really stepped up his game since Korpisalo's injury, posting a 12-3-1 record with a 1.57 goals-against average, a .950 save percentage and five shutouts. Overall this season, the 25-year-old Latvian netminder has posted a 12-7-5 record with a 2.19 goals-against average and a league-best .930 save percentage.
Be sure to tune in for the Paul William Beltz Pregame Show starting at 6 p.m. with Mike Schopp and the Bulldog from (716) Food and Sport, where you will hear from Krueger Olofsson and Lazar.