By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The call came from a Buffalo Bills’ fan who currently lives in Colorado. He had seen enough of Sunday’s game with the Baltimore Ravens to get the idea what was ahead for the team for the rest of the day and perhaps for the rest of the season. Getting straight to the point, he asked, “When does hockey season start?”
The answer, at least, in one sense, was this weekend.
The Sabres took part in a prospects challenge at HarborCenter. For the record, Buffalo defeated Pittsburgh, 10-2, in Monday’s wrap-up game – thus beating the Bills’ offensive output by a touchdown’s worth of goals. The Sabres’ goal celebration song would have been worn out had it been on vinyl.
When the game and the tournament were over, Buffalo general manager Jason Botterill sounded like a happy man.
“It was a great weekend,” he said. “Just the atmosphere in the building, on Friday and Saturday night, got our players excited. I really liked the effort of the entire team throughout the three games. I thought they showed their skill out there, and puck possession. … Overall, it was a very positive weekend.”
The last of Buffalo’s three games carried a little less excitement than the other two. Those were night games with big crowds, while Monday’s contest was played before a half-full audience. It was Rasmus Dahlin’s turn to rest, so he sat out the game with such players as William Borgen, Brendan Guhle and Tage Thompson.
Besides, when it comes to prospects, it wasn’t a particularly fair fight between the Sabres and Penguins. Buffalo has tried to stockpile draft choices in recent years, a reward for some bad hockey. Pittsburgh has gone the other way, sacrificing the future in an attempt to win immediately. Put it this way – the Sabres had 11 players on their prospects roster who were drafted in the first three rounds (four sat out Monday’s game). The Penguins had one.
In those situations, the best strategy is to look for people who might be able to help the Sabres at some point in the near future, and who stand out even at this reduced level of competition. In that area, the best news came from Alexander Nylander.
The former first-round draft choice (2016) had two goals on the afternoon, displaying a scoring touch that hasn’t been present often enough.
“It was great,” Nylander said about the day. “Last year it was unfortunate that I got injured. Since then, I’m taking every moment to do the best that I can. … I’ve been training for this the whole summer.”
Then there was the matter of Casey Mittelstadt, a first-rounder from 2017. The talented forward hadn’t created much offense during the earlier parts of the Prospects Challenge, but he seemed to get better and better as Monday’s game went along.
“Obviously there have been times that I was forcing it a little too much this weekend, but it’s early,” he said. “You get in the game flow, and when one thing starts clicking, you all click. We got a few in the third.
“You have to stick with it and play your game. I’m confident in myself, so I’ll keep doing what I do.”
The two top draft choices seemed to work well together, with Mittelstadt earning assists on both of Nylander’s goals. It was enough for Sabre fans to give a little thought that the duo could grow up together and become a good combination at some point down the road.
“I think we had good chemistry as a line,” Nylander said, including Cole Coskey as well. “We started getting more pucks to the net and played really well. We like to pass, so everyone has to be ready when someone has the puck in order to make plays.”
ASPLUND SCORES A BEAUTY
A few others also deserve a mention here. Rasmus Asphlund went through the Pittsburgh defense by putting on a series of moves up the middle that left him alone for an easy goal. The young center looks like he’s ready to compete with the big boys next week.
“He looks really good,” Nylander said. “He’s been playing really well. I haven’t seen him for the past two years. He has to keep going.”
Goalie Jonas Johansson had a strong half-game in goal, blanking the Penguins. He played for Cincinnati in the ECHL. Nicholas Welsh even chipped in with a pair of goals on defense.
It was a little odd to see a Sabre team piling up so many goals in a game. That was two weeks’ worth of work at times last season. But it was the last bit of good news in a weekend that started with Dahlin scoring two goals and looking like he could be as good as advertised before an excited crowd on Friday night.
The Sabres were rather demoralized about the game back in April when they wrapped up the 31st and last spot in the overall standings. As the beginning of training camp approaches, there’s some level of enthusiasm about what the future might hold.
That first step forward might be the team’s biggest accomplishment of the summer. Now we’ll see how long that optimism can be maintained.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB.)
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