Sabers center Dylan Cozens hasn’t been himself for much of the season. And now the latest mark in his bumpy campaign is largely self-inflicted.
Cozens played with a full face shield following his loss to Philadelphia’s Garnet Hathaway late in the Sabres’ 5-1 loss Nov. 3 at KeyBank Center. Cozens suffered a broken nose in the scuffle, an ill-advised choice against an NHL tough guy, and missed two games before being cleared to return.
Benson has been strong in the offensive zone and has assists in both games since returning from injury.
He’s only had one assist in five games since and it’s clear the mask is a problem. NHL players hate full shields and while there is obviously a lot of bravado in that, the speed of the professional game also makes it difficult to play with such a shield.
When asked after Tuesday’s practice in Chicago if he was close to being able to play without the shield, Cozens began by answering: “Yeah, I hope to get rid of it,” but you knew that ‘he had more to say when he did. I didn’t stop talking completely and added an “ummmmmm, now” to the response.
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“We’ll see what happens,” Cozens said with a laugh, knowing he let a cat out of the bag with his answer. “I know I need to have some conversations with the medical team and see about it, but you can tell I want to get it out of the way.”
Cozens was expected to continue as Buffalo’s first-line center between Jeff Skinner and Alex Tuch in Wednesday’s game against the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena. Following Tage Thompson’s long-term injury, it is paramount for him to generate more offense in Buffalo’s offense.
For the Sabers to keep pace in the Eastern Conference without Tage Thompson, the centers tasked with replacing the 47-goal scorer will need to elevate their game.
It’s easy for a player wearing the shield to lose a puck at their feet, and faceoffs become more difficult to take. Even getting off a normal shot can be a challenge with loss of control over the stick when trying to focus on a target.
In Sunday’s 3-2 win at Chicago, he had several opportunities in the offensive zone where he unleashed a shot, reacted slowly to the puck arriving or simply lost it on his stick. These are unusual developments for a player who had 31 goals and 68 points last season.
Cozens is stuck on three goals since Oct. 27 in New Jersey and has just eight points, allowing him to score just 40.
“I don’t want to make any excuses. But yeah, it’s obviously affecting my peripheral vision. I feel like I’m trapped in there,” Cozens said. “I have a black chin guard placed where I would usually see the puck. So that’s tough. It fogs up a little bit too.”
“It’s a challenge,” admitted coach Don Granato. “It disrupts your peripheral gaze on the ice; you have to tilt your head and you lose a little bit of peripheral field to the sides with that full cage. So he’ll be excited when that comes off. And obviously it’s not that far away let this happen.”
It must be recognized that Cozens was quick to introduce some responsibility into the discussion.
“I have to find a way to perform and play even in this jersey and I understand that there is a reason why I wear it,” Cozens said. “And it’s because of a decision that I made. It’s on me. So it’s about dealing with those consequences. Obviously, I’m very frustrated by all of this.”
Dahlin played 28:07 and 28:59 in the last two games, setting a season high for ice time in each case.
The season in general has been difficult for Cozens in the face of the Sabres’ offensive struggles. Buffalo entered Wednesday’s game ranked 24th in the NHL in goals (2.83 per game) and tied for 27th in power play (11.5%). The Sabers finished third and ninth, respectively, in those two areas last year.
“Clearly we didn’t score as many goals as last year,” Cozens said. “We thought about it a lot, but I think we also cleaned up a lot on defense. We’re not allowing as many goals (going from 26th to 16th) but we don’t have as much offense. So it’s tough .
“We’re happier with our defense, but we know we want to score goals. Everybody likes to score goals. And we know we have the guys who can score. That’s something we’re trying to figure out and to come back.”