By Bill Hoppe
BUFFALO — Oh, Tyler Ennis enjoys playing center. Skating there allows the slick Sabres speedster to hold the puck and utilize his creativity more effectively. He can easily move east-west. If Ennis needs to change directions and go north-south, he can simply “turn the jets on,” he said.
“It gives me kind of free reign to use the ice,” Ennis said earlier this week inside the First Niagara Center.
It’s certainly showing. With three goals and six points in three games back at center, the 22-year-old’s confidence is soaring. Overall, he has six tallies and 14 points in the last 15 contests.
“Right now, all I want is the puck,” Ennis said, “and I want to skate out there and make things happen.”
Ennis had skated at left wing almost exclusively during his first two NHL seasons. But with a dearth of scoring pivots, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff put Ennis at center in late January, a position he had played in junior and the AHL.
Ruff only wondered how Ennis would handle his defensive duties playing center.
“He’s got a little bit of fire there and he knows how to get into the body,” Ruff said. “So he’s handled the reads in his own end well. He’s opened up things in the neutral zone for us.”
Ruff switched Ennis back to the wing for a spell recently. Now, he’s probably not leaving the middle, a move Ennis said he’s “cool” with.
“That’s really, for the most part, his home to stay,” Ruff said following Ennis’ two-goal performance Monday against Montreal, which included a highlight-reel undressing of defenseman Andrei Markov.
Ennis, rookie Marcus Foligno and Drew Stafford have quickly morphed into the Sabres’ top line. The trio has seven goals, 15 points and a plus-15 rating in three games since Ruff united them Saturday in Ottawa.
Foligno, just four games into his career, has wowed fans. Stafford could finally be busting out after five miserable months.
But the 5-foot-9, 157-pound Ennis, who had three assists in Wednesday’s 5-4 shootout loss to Colorado, is the engine that drives the line.
“Ennis is just a water bug out there,” Foligno said. “If you give him the puck, he’s going to make plays. I mean, the biggest thing is when he has the puck you have to catch up to his speed. He’s going to catch guys coming late and make pretty good plays.”
Foligno added: “There’s little holes that only open for a couple seconds and he puts it right in those holes. He can sauce pass over guys’ sticks. … That’s why he’s so crucial to our team. He’s lethal when he’s out there.”
Ennis wasn’t making many lethal plays earlier this season. Fresh off a remarkably steady 20-goal, 49-point rookie campaign in which he played all 82 games, he went pointless in October.
In his seventh scoreless game Oct. 22 in Tampa Bay, Ennis sprained his ankle badly when he slammed into the post. Ennis missed 17 games, his first significant injury ever.
So much for that indestructible feeling he once possessed.
“I would play kind of reckless,” Ennis said. “For a small guy, (I would) still battle and go into the corner hard. I would get little dings and bruises and stuff. But I’ve never really experienced any long-term injuries. I felt like I was not able to get injured. All that changed when I went into the post.”
So has Ennis changed his aggressive style?
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think I just got to play the same way. I can’t change my game. I’ve been doing this my whole life, kind of playing this way. I can’t change because of one little injury.”
Ennis returned Dec. 2 and scored three times in eight games, a stretch he was “flying.”
Then he sprained the ankle again Dec. 17 in Pittsburgh, shelving him another 17 games.
“It started out as bad as it could get and now it’s just slowly getting a lot better,” Ennis said.
Ennis now understands players will inevitably get injured. It’s part of the game.
“I was lucky enough not to have anything in my career,” he said. “I took a couple big ones this year, which sucks. But I think also you got to stick with it. I had a slow start and kind of got down on myself. You just got to realize you go through stretches where everything goes in, too. So it all evens out.”
Everything’s going in now. Ennis, who’s played only 37 games, said he feels fresher than he normally would this late, like he’s “barely played.”
“I feel like all I’ve done is ride the bike,” he said. “I feel fresh. I guess with my injury I’ve been able to play with more energy because I haven’t played as much. So one positive I can take from being out so long is that I’m not as worn down.”
Notes: Sabres winger Nathan Gerbe, a surprise scratch Wednesday, pulled a muscle late in the morning skate, Ruff said. Gerbe participated in the pregame warm-up but missed his first game since Dec. 30. … The Sabres had the day off Thursday.