Anders Nilsson has included an image of a rainbow flag on the back of his goalie mask this season, a decision he made over the summer in support of LGBTQ rights. It's fitting, then, that he'll start in net for the Buffalo Sabres against the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday, a game that will double as "You Can Play Night" at KeyBank Center.
The You Can Play Project was founded to "advocate for inclusion, acceptance and respect of LGBTQ athletes in sports." Nilsson is the team ambassador for the Sabres.
Video: Nilsson: Pregame Interview vs. SJS
"I think it's been a problem," Nilsson said. "First of all, I have some gay friends, that's why I put the flag on my helmet to show support to them. Other than that, I feel it's important that the League is doing this and show that it's OK and you can play no matter what sexuality you have. Especially to younger kids and to the younger group, to show to them that it's OK to play sports no matter who you like."
Nilsson won't be alone in his support. Some players will use special Pride Tape on their sticks on their sticks during warmups, including Zemgus Girgensons. Girgensons showed off his stick following Buffalo's team meeting on Tuesday morning.
"That's part of the sport, to welcome everyone," Girgensons said. "It's always nice to show support for other causes."
Each stick will be auctioned off following the game on sabres.com/auctions, beginning at 9:30 p.m. and running through Sunday, Feb. 12 at 9 p.m. Proceeds will benefit You Can Play. The Sabres will also $5,000 to both the Gay & Lesbian Youth Services and the Pride Center of WNY.
Video: Sabres support You Can Play
"I think the You Can Play initiative is a great program for the League that they've embraced and encompassed," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "The game is a great game for all orientations, regardless of who you are or what you are."
For as proud as Nilsson is to support the cause, he also hopes there comes a day when such a night isn't necessary.
"It's good that we get so much attention to it but I also said, it's 2017 now," he said. "It shouldn't need this much attention. It shouldn't be a big thing. It shouldn't matter what sexuality you have, no matter if you play hockey or soccer, football, baseball, whatever. It shouldn't be such a big thing as it is. I think it's good that it gets all this attention to it. This obviously shows that it's much needed, that hockey is doing this."
Tickets for tonight's game are still available. 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 between the Sabres and Sharks at 7 p.m.
Sabres looking to rebound
Buffalo is coming off of a 2-1 loss in New Jersey on Monday, a game in which they struggled to find any flow to their offensive game and only managed 23 shots on goal. But they're offensive struggles, Bylsma said, actually began in the defensive zone.
"I think in a lot of ways, where we've been good is we've played good defense and gotten our offensive chances and pressure the other way from that defense," he said. "Last night, particularly in the second period, we played a lot of defense and played poorly with the puck. That turned into defense for us and prevented us from getting to where we need to get to in the offensive end."
The Sharks are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games, having ascended to first place in the Pacific Division in the process. Brent Burns leads the team with 22 goals (most among NHL defensemen) and 33 assists, placing him fourth in the League with 55 points (also most among defensemen).
Veteran Patrick Marleau, meanwhile, recently scored his 500th NHL goal and is coming off an eight-goal month of January at age 37. All 500 of his goals have come in a San Jose uniform.
"That's a lot of years," Bylsma said. "He scored goals against me so he's been doing it for an awfully long time. Yes, to do it with one team I think is remarkable. It's just unheard of almost to think that players go through their whole career with one team. Watching the film and the tape of him, he's still got the speed and he's still got the step that has made him a special player."
For as good as the Sharks have been during Marleau's career, they've endured their fair share of struggles in Buffalo. The Sabres hold a 23-6-6 series record against San Jose and are 9-1-1 in their last 10 matchups.
Beyond Nilsson, Bylsma said the Buffalo lineup will be a game-time decision. Here's how the lineup looked at the outset of Monday's game, although Tyler Ennis did see time alongside Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo as the night progressed.
26 Matt Moulson - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
82 Marcus Foligno - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
9 Evander Kane - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 12 Brian Gionta
56 Justin Bailey - 44 Nicolas Deslauriers - 63 Tyler Ennis
77 Dmitry Kulikov - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe - 6 Cody Franson
4 Josh Gorges - 41 Justin Falk
31 Anders Nilsson
40 Robin Lehner