April 07, 2016

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) Buffalo Sabres center Tyler Ennis was grateful for the mere opportunity to return to the ice for practice Thursday after enduring several difficult months recovering from the effects of a concussion.

''It felt great. I mean, I can still skate. I figured that out,'' Ennis said with a wide-eyed grin. ''Not playing hockey is strange. And it's the opposite: When I'm on the ice, it's the greatest feeling.''

Though he's been ruled out from playing in Buffalo's final two games of season, Ennis took a major step in his recovery by rejoining his teammates for the first time since being hurt in the second period of a 5-2 loss at Washington on Dec. 30. The diminutive forward was going after the puck along the boards in his own zone, when he suddenly turned his back and was hit from behind by Capitals star Alex Ovechkin.

Ennis got up slowly, rejoined the play and checked Nicklas Backstrom into the end boards. Upon leaving the ice, Ennis went directly to the locker room after experiencing his second head injury in a little over a month.

The game against Washington was Ennis' fourth after he missed 12 games following a high hit by St. Louis Blues defenseman Robert Bertuzzo.

What followed was a frightening stretch, during which Ennis experienced seizures, had to be shuttled by Sabres staff because he was not allowed to drive, and, on the worst days, wondered whether he might ever play again.

''It's really a difficult thing. A lot of different emotions, a lot of ups and downs,'' he said. ''To say I wasn't scared at some point would be probably a lie.''

Ennis said he's symptom free, feels 100 percent, and excited to begin looking forward to resuming his career.

''It gave me time to kind of reflect, appreciate what I have and give me that much more motivation and excitement for whenever I get back,'' he said. ''I wish we could play 82 more games.''

The second of Buffalo's two first-round picks in the 2008 draft, Ennis is a three-time 20-goal-scorer and known for his speed and being fearless in traffic despite his 5-foot-9, 160-pound frame.

He's been limited to just three goals and 11 points in 23 games.

Coach Dan Bylsma expressed relief to see Ennis return.

''It's been a long road. He's had significant improvement in the last two weeks,'' Bylsma said, noting Ennis eagerly took part in an optional skate a day earlier. ''It's rare that at this time of year you get a guy who's so excited to be on the ice practicing with his teammates.''

Bylsma and Ennis sidestepped questions regarding whether the center will be allowed to represent Canada at the World Ice Hockey Championships, which open in Russia next month.

Ennis focused solely on the present, and the significance of being back on the ice.

''It's important because I know I can play hockey. It's important because I feel great. It's important because I got to be with the boys,'' Ennis said. ''But mostly, it's important because it means that I'm healthy.''

NOTES: Earlier in the day, the Sabres called up forwards Evan Rodrigues and Cole Schneider from their American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester. Bylsma said both will make their NHL debuts on Friday, when the Sabres close their home schedule hosting Columbus. ... Bylsma hasn't ruled out the possibility of goalie Jason Kasdorf making his NHL debut in one of Buffalo's final two games. The Sabres close the season at the New York Islanders on Saturday.

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