Alex and William Nylander have come a long way from playing knee hockey.
Until they met in the preseason back in September, that was the extent of their head-to-head experience - that and practice. Tonight, they'll take it a step further: Alex will make his NHL debut for the Buffalo Sabres against William and the Toronto Maple Leafs at KeyBank Center.
"It's kind of crazy that I'm going to play against my brother in my first game," Alex said. "I'm just super excited and I'm pumped for tonight."
Video: Preview: TOR at BUF (4/3/17)
Alex was selected with the eighth overall pick in the draft this past summer, the same spot where Toronto selected William two years prior. He's spent the entirety of this season playing in Rochester, where he's accrued 27 points (9+18) in 62 games.
Those aren't exactly the numbers that he's been accustomed to putting up - he scored 75 points (28+47) a year ago for Mississauga of the OHL, his final season of junior hockey. But the jump from junior to the pros is about more than skill with the puck, a lesson he's learned playing as an 18 year old (he turned 19 on March 2) in the AHL.
"You're growing up measured by your production and scoring goals and racking up points and what you do there," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "I think as an 18-year-old young man, he's starting pro hockey and learning that lesson about playing the right way and playing all over the ice. That's a tough one to get when you're not necessarily putting up goals and putting up points and assists. All the while, you're an 18-year-old kid doing it."
Video: BYLSMA: Pregame Interview
With that being said, Bylsma also said he believes the structure of the NHL game might be a better fit for Nylander to success.
"I think Alex is a talented and skilled player," he said. "He's got deception in his game both from his shot and playmaking ability. Yes, I think there's a good chance that you'll see him have maybe a little bit more success than he's had so far this year in Rochester."
Alex said that, aside from a discrepancy in the way they skate, he believes his and his brother's games are a lot alike. That's good news when you consider the success William has had as a rookie this season. He ranks third amongst rookies with 59 points (22+37), behind teammate Auston Matthews and Winnipeg's Patrik Laine, and was named the NHL's Rookie of the Month for March after leading all rookies with 14 points (4+10) in 14 games.
"He's helped me a lot since he came up last year halfway through the season in the NHL," Alex said. "He's helped me just try to develop as much as possible in the AHL and be ready when this moment comes."
William remembered another way he might have helped his younger brother along the way.
"I actually played goalie when I was a kid so he'd be shooting on me all the time," he said. "I think that's how he got a good shot."
For 60 minutes tonight, however, brotherly love goes out the window, replaced by the same sibling rivalry that fueled them in knee hockey and beyond.
"We're brothers. We always want to be better than each other," William said. "It'll be fun."
"We've always had a winning culture," Alex said. "Sometimes some fights broke out but at the end of the day we're best friends."
Nylander, All Access
For a better idea of the sibling rivalry between Alex and William Nylander, check out this teaser for a new episode of Amerks All Access, which delves into Alex's life growing up and his first pro season:
Cody Franson is expected to play after missing the last six games due to injury. Kyle Okposo will be absent for a third straight game due to an illness.
Nylander, meanwhile, will start the game playing the right wing on a line with Marcus Foligno and Evan Rodrigues. Bylsma did not announce what forward will come out of the lineup to make room for him.
Robin Lehner will start in net for the Sabres while Frederick Andersen is expected to start for the Maple Leafs.
Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with the Tops Pregame Show on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops at 7 p.m.