The Buffalo Sabres continued to chug through their preseason schedule with a trip to St. Catherines, Ontario last night. Buffalo and the Toronto Maple Leafs took a scoreless tie to the shootout where Matt Moulson scored the only goal in the fourth round to give the Sabres the shootout win.
The key word for the Sabres is scoreless and the goalie responsible for it was Anders Nilsson as he stopped all 23 shots in 65 minutes of play then stopped four more during the shootout. "He was rock solid," said head coach Dan Bylsma to the gathered media post-game. "It gives you a real comfortable feeling when you see a guy in net backstop your team."
Nilsson has made a pretty strong impression thus far. He played 30 minutes of shutout hockey over the course of two games during intrasquad scrimmages then stopped 26 of 27 shots in 40 minutes of ice time vs. the Minnesota Wild in Buffalo's preseason opener. Add it all up and he's off to a pretty good start for his fourth NHL team in six seasons.
Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray acquired Nilsson from the St. Louis Blues as a backup to starter Robin Lehner after a free agent deal went south. Pittsburgh Penguins backup Jeff Zatkoff had agreed to a deal with Buffalo before changing his mind and headed to Los Angeles leaving Murray holding the bag. Murray immediately turned his attention to Nilsson and the deal with St. Louis for his rights was consummated.
The overriding theme emanating from Sabreland at the time was that Murray panicked and paid too much both in the fifth-round pick he sent to the Blues as well as the one-year/$1M contract he doled out. Nilsson had played in a total of 52 NHL games for three teams compiling a 19-22-4 record with a composite 3.09 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage. Not exactly sterling by any stretch of the imagination, even for a back up.
One thing Nilsson had going for him, other than Zatkoff putting the Sabres in a pinch, is that he has the size Murray covets in his goalies. Nilsson, like Lehner, is 6'5" and he chimes in at 225 lbs.
What he's been unable to do thus far in his career is create a large presence in net to match is size and it will be up to Sabres goalie coach Andrew Allen to help create that. Allen is in his second season with the Sabres and last season under his tutelage, backup goalie Chad Johnson had some of the best numbers of his career (including a career-high 22 wins.)
Nilsson has paid his dues in the league and even went to the KHL to get playing time against better competition. After finishing up his entry-level deal with the team that drafted him, the NY Islanders, Nilsson packed his bags and went to the KHL where he made the All-Star team and came back to the NHL with a ton of confidence. "I felt I needed an environment change to continue my development," he said via Amy Mortiz of the Buffalo News. "I felt it was the right way to go for me. My goal before going to Russia was to come back to North America and that was always in the back of my head and I was fortunate to do that."
During his time in Russia his rights were traded twice--from the Islanders to the Chicago Blackhawks to the Edmonton Oilers, the team he played for upon his return to North America. After a robust start to his career in Edmonton, Nilsson slumped and was sent to St. Louis. He appeared in three games for the Blues to finish last season before Buffalo acquired his rights.
No matter where he plays, however, it always comes back to size, something Bylsma talked about from the get-go. "It's tough to look at him and not see the size of him net," he said of Nilsson after that first scrimmage. "To play big, to play that big, and certainly he did in the scrimmage today, that’s got to be the strength of his game. He’s such a big body to be square and be in front of the shots. The expectation is that he stops the puck and he showed today he can do that."
Nilsson is continuing to do that so far this preseason and he's done so as the level of competition is getting better. As the preseason wears on, prospects will be sent back to their respective developmental leagues and the NHL'ers will start gearing up for the regular season. Hopefully for the Sabres Nilsson will be able to continue to progress as the competition gets stiffer. One thing that will help him is the Sabres defensive system that was on display last night against Toronto.
"The guys in front of me have played two very good games," said Nilsson last night. "They didn’t give up a lot of scoring chances or a lot of shots. It was more a team shutout and a team win." Save, of course, for the shootout where Nilsson stood alone.
Opportunity is knocking for Nilsson as he tries to solidify his role in Buffalo. Bylsma believes that the 26 yr. old is making his opportunity count. "He wants to prove he can be in the net and be a capable goaltender when he gets the opportunity,” said Bylsma last night. “He’s had two opportunities to this point, and he’s been really good in both of them."
That's a good sign for the Sabres and let's hope it continues.
Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster:
LW, Evander Kane / C, Ryan O'Reilly / RW, Kyle Okposo
LW, Tyler Ennis / C, Jack Eichel / RW, Sam Reinhart
LW, Matt Moulson / C, Zemgus Girgensons/ RW, Justin Bailey
LW, Marcus Foligno / C, Johan Larsson / RW, Brian Gionta
D, Rasmus Ristolainen/ Dmitry Kulikov
D, Zach Bogosian/ D, Jake McCabe
D, Cody Franson / D, Josh Gorges
G, Robin Lehner
G, Anders Nilsson