By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The Buffalo Sabres had little trouble disposing of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League, 3-2, on Tuesday night.
Don’t laugh. There were nights last season when the Sabres might have lost to some minor league teams.
No one knows how this season will turn out, but Buffalo’s first home preseason game had more or less a predetermined outcome. The Sabres played many of the individuals who are at least in the mix for making the NHL team for the start of the regular season. The Pittsburgh Penguins only had a few people in uniform that fans outside of the state of Pennsylvania might recognize. Buffalo had a 3-0 lead after 55 minutes, and held on for the win despite giving up a couple of goals down the stretch.
Much of the focus of those in attendance for this one was on Rasmus Dahlin, the first overall draft and poster boy for a potential Sabres’ turnaround in the near future. Reviewing someone’s performance in the first of what will be many outings is, of course, unfair. But it happens anyway.
Therefore, I can report that the kid did fine. Yes, he had one giveaway in his own end in which goalie Carter Hutton came to his rescue. Better now than in October. He also did some stickhandling around the Pittsburgh blue line that hasn’t been seen in these parts by a Sabre defenseman in quite a while. In other words, Dahlin wasn’t a typical 18-year-old defenseman playing in his first preseason game – at least outwardly.
“I was nervous before the game,” he said. “But when you make your first pass, then it’s gone. You get comfortable.”
“Players like that come in here, and it was no different when Jack (Eichel) came in the league,” defense partner Jake McCabe said. “The young studs that come in think the game differently. The play slows down for them.
“He’s very poised with the puck. There’s not a lot of panic in his game, and that’s something that you can’t teach.”
Others play well too
Dahlin didn’t show up on the scoresheet, and neither did Casey Mittelstadt. Buffalo’s other talented rookie did make some excellent passes in the Pittsburgh end. They just weren’t converted into goals. Mittelstadt was on a line with Evan Rodriguez and Jason Pominville.
“It’s nice for me to play with guys I played with last year,” Mittelstadt said. “We’ve obviously got a little bit of chemistry. We had a few chances that we missed on. But if we keep playing, they’ll start coming.
Those involved in scoring plays offered a little hope for down the road as well. Vladimir Sobotka tapped in a loose puck that was bouncing around the Pittsburgh crease near the end of the first period. Sobotka came over from the Blues in the Ryan O’Reilly trade.
In the second period, McCabe scored from about the same distance to make it 2-0. The veteran looked good in his first game action since he suffered an injury in January. A healthy McCabe would be a big help in determining who goes where at the blue line.
That was followed by a short-handed breakaway beauty from Jack Eichel. Everyone certainly realizes that if the Sabres are going to surprise some people and have a chance to qualify for the postseason, Eichel will have to lead the way.
Hutton has spotless night
Want some more good news? Hutton, a goalie signed as a free agent from St. Louis, was perfect in two periods of work. In a summer full of personnel moves, Hutton’s addition might be the most underrated of any of them.
“There’s nothing you can do in camp to get that game-like speed and traffic,” Hutton said about his debut in a Buffalo uniform. “I thought I attacked the puck pretty well. That’s the biggest thing. Sometimes everyone is working so hard that it’s chaotic. It seemed like a lot of guys come buzzing in. So tonight was good. I tracked the puck and got a good feel. It was a good start for sure.”
Scott Wedgewood, ticketed for Rochester, cleaned up after Hutton in the third period.
Meanwhile, Rasmus Ristolainen had some good moments back on defense, and forward C.J. Smith caught some eyes with his play on left wing. No one wanted to read too much into a preseason game only days after the opening of training camp, but coach Phil Housley was relatively satisfied.
“I thought the effort and the intentions were real good,” he said. “I didn’t like the way we managed the game in some areas. At times when we got in trouble, we’d turn the puck over as we’d make a bad decision. … I really liked what we brought tonight. Special teams were really solid for us.”
Next up for the Sabres is a trip to Toronto on Friday. The Maple Leafs will return the favor on Saturday night at the KeyBank Center.