BUFFALO -- When the Florida Panthers visit the Buffalo Sabres on Friday, the highlight of the matchup involves the top two players selected in the 2014 NHL Draft.
Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad, selected first, and Sabres forward Sam Reinhart, selected second, will face off against each other for the first time in their pro careers. While they are good friends and were roommates while trying out for Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup, they're focused on what lies ahead in their careers.
"I come into every single game with just an attitude that I want to come out, be positive, work hard and be enthusiastic about the game every shift," Ekblad said. "And that's kind of the mentality I have going into every game. I don't really think about who I'm playing against. You can't cheat against everyone; you have to play in this League because everyone is so good."
The top two picks in the draft haven't played against each other this early in a season since Oct. 11, 1997, when top pick Joe Thornton, then of the Boston Bruins, faced second pick and future teammate Patrick Marleau of the San Jose Sharks.
"That's one day out of your lifetime," Reinhart said of his first game against Ekblad. "As excited as it was getting drafted here, that's the biggest priority, going to a team that wants you and an organization that is going to give you an opportunity. I wasn't preparing for the draft, I was preparing for the work that comes now, what's surrounding me now."
Ekblad's start with the Panthers has been a positive one despite Florida starting the season without a win (0-2-1). Through three games he has an assist, and his ice time has increased in every game, topping out at 23:34 on Monday against the Ottawa Senators; he's averaging 21:49 of ice time per game, tops among all rookies.
"It means a lot," Ekblad said. "I mean, that's obvious that the coaches have the confidence to put me out there that much throughout a game. I'm really happy to have those kind of opportunities. I've been lucky. I've been blessed my whole life to have those kind of opportunities to play a lot of minutes and all that good stuff. I have to try and take advantage of it and use those opportunities to my favor and hopefully contribute to my team win."
Reinhart's start has been a bit slower. Through the first three games he was playing on the third line, but was moved to the fourth line Tuesday against the Carolina Hurricanes. He'll again be on the fourth line against Florida, but the Sabres (1-3-0) aren't down on him at all.
"His skill set is off the charts as far as his hockey intelligence; you can see that," Sabres coach Ted Nolan said. "Everything he does is calculated. He knows his position on the ice. It takes a lot to go from junior hockey [to the NHL]. You're dealing with young men and some boys at times. In this League there’s no boys; it's all men. He just has to learn to do things quicker than he has and he'll be fine."
The person who might know best about Reinhart is someone who has been around him a lot and will play against him Friday.
"Just knowing that he's a really smart guy, on and off the ice he's a smart kid, and he uses that on the ice to his advantage," Ekblad said. "He's a good player and someone to watch out for out there."