By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
If the Sabres were a theatrical musical, they’d be in New Haven, Connecticut, right now.
You might know how it works. The new play is performed somewhere where no one is paying close attention. That way, the producers can discreetly figure what improvements are needed in the story and production. The actors become familiar with their roles. The director develops a relationship with the cast and crew. If everything works properly, the issues are ironed out and everyone heads to Broadway in the hopes of adding a smash hit to their resume.
The Sabres took another step toward the Great White Way on Sunday afternoon, coming up with an impressive 4-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the KeyBank Center. You could say that everyone in the production company, from the leads to the members of the chorus line to the lighting crew, did their jobs well in following an excellent script.
Start with the star of the group, Sam Reinhart. He’s been forced into that role as some of the bigger names have become unavailable. The forward leads the team in goals and assists, and he added two more goals on Sunday.
Reinhart is one of the few veterans left standing after the run of injuries and trades that have altered the roster. Coach Don Granato sees the veteran trying to become more of a leader, particularly under the circumstances.
“He’s engaged in a different way,” he said. “He’s not a real vocal guy. He’s only vocal when it’s necessary. Now we see him more vocal, more talkative. In between shifts, he’s working with guys on his life and on other lines, and that’s nice to see.”
Staying in the lineup
It wouldn’t be a theatrical production without some veteran of the business getting an unexpected opportunity. That role has been played by goalie Dustin Tokarski, a career understudy who has been asked to help salvage what’s left of the season. He’s certainly grabbed the spotlight lately, with wins over the powerful Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins.
It’s not easy to play goal in the NHL on back-to-back days. Still, when opportunity knocks, you have to answer it. Tokarski did that with 34 saves, often smothering shots and preventing rebounds from turning into scoring chances.
“If someone is giving me an NHL start, I’m taking it every time,” he said. “It was a lot of fun getting the win against those guys.”
About the only disappointment for Tokarski was the fact that he didn’t get his second career shutout in the game. When Buffalo led by 3-0 with less than 10 minutes to go, the idea seemed plausible. But Jason Zucker scored in a scramble off a faceoff, and Tokarski’s only career NHL shutout remained a win in Buffalo for Montreal on March 16, 2014.
A couple of the youngsters right out of “school” showed some promise as well. Mattias Samuelsson was called up from Rochester to make his NHL debut. He took the customary solo lap at the start of warmups (“You skate around for two or three laps, you’re a little nervous, and then everyone comes out,” he said.), and then played about 14 minutes – mostly with veteran Rasmus Ristolainen.
“It was automatic,” Granato said about the pairing. “We talked about it a few games ago. The chemistry with (Jacob) Bryson and Risto was awesome. Risto enjoying mentoring Bryson’s game, and we thought this was a perfect situation (for Samuelsson). Bryson was ready to go on his own. It was a heck of a job by Ristolainen helping us in the last little bit.”
More from the kids
Arttu Ruotsalainen knew what Samuelsson was feeling, since he played his first NHL game on April 9 and made the same lonely skate. Ruotsalainen scored a goal off a nice pass from Dylan Cozens only 26 seconds into the game that set the tone for the rest of the performance.
“That helped,” Reinhart said about the goal. “I think if you look at that shift, they (the Penguins) came out really hot. They did a good job of weathering it. It could have gone two different ways. It was good to start off the right way.”
The players aren’t the only ones who are auditioning for permanent work, as Granato no doubt has hopes of turning an interim position into something that lasts much longer. He liked the way his team had some jump throughout the game, as it wore down the Penguins with a convincing 60-minute performance.
“I was really happy with that,” he said. “I mentioned (it) in the locker room after the second (period). We came in and looked at a couple of clips. It looked like we were pressuring, and they looked more tired than we did. … It made me think to (Saturday’s) game, that making it hard for them to the end may have had an effect. We played a wiser game. It was a little messy with the puck (Saturday). The guys cleaned that up today. It was real nice to see that.”
We won’t know how the finished production will look until fall on the Big Stage, when the stakes go up and the pressure mounts. But in the meantime, Sunday was another step forward. The Sabres’ next scheduled performance again will be in New Haven, er, the KeyBank Center on Tuesday; it’s the first of three straight at home against Boston.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)