There was a mix of draftees, juniors, and AHL'ers all trying to impress with a few veteran NHL'ers sprinkled in for good measure. It's preseason and because of the youth and lack of NHL experience the players on the ice have much more room to maneuver which leads to more room on the ice and more of an opportunity to really let their skills shine.
This was all in response to Zemgus Girgenson's two goals in the second period.
The Latvian Locomotive took over the ice in the second period scoring a short-handed goal just :58 into the second period. Linemate Johan Larsson spooked a Canadian at the Buffalo blueline and Girgensons jumped on the puck. He took it up ice on the left wing dug in towards the net behind the d and squeaked one under Peter Budaj.
It was a performance for Sabres fans to get excited about. But will he be able to do that at the NHL level?
Duff pointed out that draft projections had Girgensons in a solid third-line NHL role with the possibility of moving into a second line role if he can produce goals like we saw last night.
His second was a beaut as he rushed in on the right side and snapped a wicked shot top-shelf. Canadians goalie Zach Fucale went butterfly and Girgensons just zipped it over his shoulder.
Perhaps this is a harbinger of things to come.
Girgensons was the youngest player in the AHL last season and spent most of it getting a feel for the game. Despite not getting on the scoresheet often, he saw the ice very well, was in constant motion and always seemed to be in position. You could sense that he soaking up everything as he learned the game on the fly.
Come playoff time? Three goals in three games with Rochester coach Chadd Cassidy calling him the best player on the ice. Period.
The answer as to whether he had the ability to score at the pro level was answered during that short playoff appearance.
There's still a long way to go and Duffer was right to caution against getting too excited. After all there's a matter of being able to produce at the NHL level and then there's a matter of consistency.
Perhaps. But it's hard not to get excited.
Throughout his hockey career Girgensons has been extremely competitive with his will driving his skill. His former USHL coach, Jim Montgomery, talked about the work ethic, competitiveness and intangibles that Girgensons brings to the ice.
“This is a challenge he’s wanted. This has been his dream probably since he was 12 years old," said Montgomery in a piece by Sabres.com's Kevin Snow entitled The Legend of Zemgus. "If Zemgus has the belief that he can accomplish something," continued Montgomery, "and there’s a challenge in front of him, then he’s going to attack it.”
Girgensons' approach isn't overt therefore his game is a bit more subtle until an on-ice opportunity presents itself.
Last night he and Johan Larsson were going about their business on the penalty kill when the puck squirted out to center ice. Girgensons jumped on it and powered his way to the net for his first goal. Said Montgomery of his Dubuque Fighting Saints alum, "as a hockey player, it was like ‘wow, we’ve got something special.’ It was his power and strength, and his ability to do that at top-end speed and still make plays."
At the very least the Sabres look have themselves a top-nine forward in the making who can be counted on in all situations.
Who knows, with Girgensons skill and will, they may have themselves a top-six two-way center in the mold of Rod Brind'Amour or Mike Richards.
Girgensons really seemed to kick his professional game in gear when Larsson was acquired in the Jason Pominville trade.
They were a dynamic duo for the Amerks late in the season and into the playoffs last year and they're doing it again, first at Traverse City now in preseason.
While watching those two last night, I couldn't help but think of the chemistry between Don Luce and Craig Ramsay.
Lofty? Yes indeed. But Girgensons and Larsson's chemistry is just that good.
Prior to September, there might have been questions as to which one might end up on the Sabres roster to begin the season.
Now the question might be, who will be their right-winger on the third line in Buffalo?
A possibility for that third-line RW role might be Brian Flynn.
Flynn had an outstanding rookie campaign after getting the call from Rochester last season. In 26 games he had six goals and five assists playing bottom-six minutes.
He is the type of player who is in constant motion and seems to have sound hockey sense. Although he's not very big (6' 170 lbs.) he plays big.
As an undrafted free agent out of Hockey East with the Maine Black Bears, Flynn knows nothing will be given to him except the opportunity.
So far he's taken advantage of the opportunity afforded him by the Sabres organization.
On the other side of the "opportunity coin," Buffalo dressed their last four first round picks for this game.
Mikhail Grigorenko (#12) and Girgensons (#14) represented the class of 2012 while Rasmus Ristolainen (#8) and Nikita Zadorov (#16) were a part of the 2013 draft class.
Much is expected of Grigorenko this season. He's already been handed the #2 center role and looks to have veterans Steve Ott and Ville Leino on the wings.
Grigorenko had trouble adjusting to the NHL game last year and looked to be in the same boat last night.
But then he seemed to kick it in gear.
Although he didn't hit the scoresheet, it seemed as if something clicked last night. He still has a way to go as his decision-making leads to missed opportunities and holding onto the puck too long, but one cannot dismiss his skill-level.
He scored the only goal of the shootout last night, just plain smoking Fucale on a wicked snap-backhand that punctuated the net.
Confidence is the key for him and working with Ott on the wing certainly will be a major plus for him.
Ristolainen and Zadorov acquitted themselves very well last night, each in their own way.
Neither played completely mistake-free but their positives far outweighed any negatives.
As a strong, smart positional d-man, Ristolainen was all that. He worked the penalty kill and was on the point with Mark Pysyk on the first powerplay unit and looked extremely comfortable in all those roles.
Zadorov was also used in every situation. He brought that physical edge whether it was leveling a Hab at the blueline or whacking away at any Canadian standing in the crease.
He was also on the ice for a crucial 4-on-3 later in the third with that unit not giving up a goal.
One thing Sabres fans will like about both on the powerplay is their shot from the point.
After years of watching defensemen Alexei Zhitnik and Andrej Sekera shoot high and wide (by yards, not feet or inches,) Ristolainen and Zadorov got most of their shots on net.
Ristolainen's shot from the point on a set play from Cody McCormick on the faceoff lead to a rebound goal by Colton Gillies.
Nothing fancy, just get the puck through and on net.
Probably the most solid pairing of the night belonged to Pysyk and Hank Tallinder.
Pysyk, a smooth, shutdown d-man and Tallinder, another d-man of the same ilk, worked real well together. In fact, during one segment, I saw both of them retreat in unison and go to their positions like a pair of synchronized swimmers. Just perfect.
Tallinder did what he always has done-smart, safe plays. If he can play that type of game during the regular season alongside Pysyk, the Sabres may have another defenseman in the running for the Calder Trophy.
Not all was great for the game.
Jonas Enroth was shaky letting in a couple that he should have had.
Jamie McBain showed some defensive flaws, but can wow by jumping into the play. He took a pass from Ott in the slot and rifled one past Budaj.
And although McCormick won a faceoff that lead directly to the game-tying fourth goal, he also did some ill-advised bullying that lead to way more time in the box than he had on the ice. I love the guy, but with a group of youngins that are charging fast, I'm not sure he'll have enough to make the NHL team.
The Sabres finding their way into the penalty box was a problem all night vs. the Canadians. The Habs fourth goal was a result of a powerplay and they also had a 4-on-3 in overtime, although they failed to convert.
All told the Sabres killed off four of the Canadians' six powerplays.
The parade to the box did offer some comic relief, though. At one point, Ott (roughing,) Zadorov (roughing,) McCormick (fighting and roughing) and Patrick Kaleta (double roughing minor) were all crammed into the box at the same time for various intimidation tactics.
Finally there's goalie Matt Hackett who also came over from Minnesota in the Pominville trade. Hackett was solid in net and stifled the Canadians during the shootout.
Throughout his portion of the game, Montreal continually tried to go glove-side only to shoot wide.
He was covering up a lot of the net with his angles, which is a good thing.
Notes from the boxscore:
- McCormick had 5:22 of ice time, 24 penalty minutes. He had two fighting majors, instigator and roughing minors, and a 10-minute misconduct.
- Nine different Sabres ended up on the score sheet
- Only one player had a negative plus/minus--Luke Adam
- Although Adam didn't have a penalty, he was in the box twice serving McCormick's instigator and roughing penalties.
- Enroth had a .769 sv. %; Hackett's was .917%
- Only three players failed to log double digit minutes and they comprised the fourth line: McCormick, Kaleta and Gillies
- Ristolainen logged over 23 mins of ice-time and lead the team with 5:20 on the penalty kill.
- Zadorov had over 21 mins of ice-time. His 4:17 on the powerplay tied for the team lead with McBain.
- McBain also lead the team in even strenght ice-time with 16:32.
- Everyone got in on special teams save for McCormick and Adam. Neither Gillies or Kaleta were on the powerplay. They logged 0:07 and 0:04 on the penalty kill, respectively
Yesterday's lineup via sabres.com:
Steve Ott – Mikhail Grigorenko – Ville Leino
Zemgus Girgensons – Johan Larsson – Drew Stafford
Luke Adam – Kevin Porter – Brian Flynn
Colton Gillies – Cody McCormick – Patrick Kaleta
Henrik Tallinder – Mark Pysyk
Mike Weber – Rasmus Ristolainen
Nikita Zadorov – Jamie McBain