Monday, October 10, 2016

Plenty of positives as the Sabres close out the preseason with a win

Published by, 10-08-16

The Buffalo Sabres travelled to Ottawa last night missing two top-six forwards and half of their starting defense corps with Ryan O'Reilly, Kyle Okposo, Zach Bogosian and Dmitry Kulikov nursing injuries and top defenseman, Rasmus Ristolainen, still unsigned.

While the Sabres may have been looking to simply hold the fort in their preseason finale' the Senators eyed a different approach. "I think we consider this the first game of 83 on the season," said Sens forward Mike Hoffman. "We've got the whole squad going tonight and I'm sure they have the same thing. Everyone wants to get the good habits going for when the first regular season game starts. We're taking this game like it's a real game."

Perhaps not every Ottawa player was on the same page as a depleted Buffalo squad handed them a 4-2 defeat. The Sabres scored once in the first period and twice in the second to take a 3-0 lead then proceeded to hold on the rest of the way. Buffalo got goals from Sam Reinhart, Marcus Foligno, Derek Grant and Evander Kane with Reinhart and Kane each adding an assist.

For Sabres fans there are plenty of positives that make up a foundation of optimism heading into the season. Although no Stanley Cup parades are in the works, here are a few things that came of the Ottawa game and the preseason in general.

The Sabres have some depth heading into this season and despite some fans ready to hang GM Tim Murray from the yard-arm for his moves, the guy has a pretty good eye for talent. Two players that had a definitive affect on the team this preseason were Grant and Casey Nelson, both of whom were signed as free agents.

Grant had himself a whale of a camp capping off a six point preseason with a shortie last night. Early in the preseason head coach Dan Bylsma had Grant in the top six and he responded with a one-goal, two assist night in a 3-2 overtime win. After dropping to the bottom-six the 26 yr. old Grant responded with continued excellence in a defensive role. Grant's name was mentioned by Bylsma throughout the preseason and it looks as if the 6'3" 202 lb. forward landed himself a spot on the Sabres opening night roster.

Nelson was another Murray signing that had a strong camp. The 24 yr. old was highly sought after coming out of college last may but signed with Buffalo and never looked out of place in his seven-game NHL debut late last season. He's smart and steady on the blueline and has a penchant for making the right play from the point in the offensive zone. Last night he sent a tippable shot from the point that Reinhart redirected home for the first goal of the game. It was the second game in a row that the two combined on a goal like that. Nelson made his pitch to stick with the club and if the three starters all return, the Sabres will need to make a choice as to keeping him in a reserve role or sending him to Rochester for top-flight minutes.

Defenseman Jake McCabe really surprised at camp as he progressed mightily while completely embracing his increased responsibilities. Last night he skated a game-high 25:43 minutes and finished a plus-one while also, once again, getting powerplay time. Bylsma had him skating with 19 yr. old Brendan Guhle and to help accommodate had McCabe playing his off side for the second game in a row. He also took a misconduct penalty last night for coming to the aid of his teammates and received some well deserved praise from Bylsma after the game last night. "Jake, to me, has been a real leader throughout camp," Bylsma told the gathered media post-game, "he was a leader with his play."

Goalie Robin Lehner came into camp with a new attitude and it translated into a very strong camp. Lehner, who was injured most of last season cut his hair, dropped some weight and opted to forgo the World Cup of Hockey to focus on the upcoming season with Buffalo. It translated into three preseason wins. Two of them coming against his former Ottawa team and the other was a shutout win against the Carolina Hurricanes with the Sabres coming off an 8-1 blowout loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. In all Lehner allowed four goals on 99 shots for a .959 save percentage.

"There's a lot of things going well," Lehner told the media post-game through the sniffles of an oncoming bout with the flu, "it feels good." Lehner talked about his training which has helped his stamina, "I don't get tired," he said, while throwing some props to goalie coach Andrew Allen who helped him with his footwork.

Lehner has looked larger than his 6'5" frame drawing high praise from the coach. "He's played three games now and he's looked like the puck wasn't gonna get by him on any of those occasions," Bylsma said. "That's a great thing to see from him … tonight I thought he was strong again."

Bylsma, who is known for juggling his lines throughout the year, had Jack Eichel centering Kane and Reinhart and the trio was definitely noticeable. Although the coach would not commit to those three as a line heading into the season he did say, "They scored, they created opportunities right from the beginning of the game and they had a couple of speed opportunities. It's what you want to see and need to see out of them."

All that said, the real bullets don't fly until Thursday when the Sabres host the Montreal Canadians for their opener. Who's back in the lineup and how Bylsma will use them is to be determined but one of the things we can take away from the preseason is that the Sabres now have some depth when you look at the contributions of Grant and Nelson as well as the versatility and "the step in the progression," according to Bylsma, of McCabe. It was also a camp that featured a step in the progression of the team as a whole as there was a stronger commitment to training and more comfort being in Bylsma's system for the second year.

Put it all together and a decidedly short-handed Sabres team was able to go to Ottawa and pull out a win last night against a team that was treating the game as a regular season contest. That's a good way to end a solid preseason.

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