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by Brian Duff / Buffalo Sabres

One game at a time. An all too familiar, yet appropriate cliche at this time of year, for most players and coaches alike.

Too bad.

I’m breaking the rules and talking about Buffalo’s next three games, with an emphasis on who and what you may be seeing in the form of their opposition.

The only drawback to this time of year, when your team is locked in a struggle for its playoff lives each and every night, is that you really don’t have a chance, or take the chance, to appreciate the players on the other side. You’re too busy focusing on every single play being made by each player wearing the blue and gold.

Well, far be it from me to change the way you watch the game right now, but do yourself a favor and pay close attention Wednesday night to Colorado’s number 92, super rookie Gabriel Landeskog. I know what you’re thinking: wrong use of the words “super rookie” when the guy is likely to score fewer than 60 points.

Super rookie should be reserved for the likes of Teemu Selanne, who scored 76 goals as a freshman in 1992-93. Or even Gilbert Perreault, who, with the weight of a new franchise upon him, tallied 38 goals for the Sabres and nearly a point per game en route to the Calder Trophy back in 1970-71.

But I digress.

Today’s players, upon entry into the NHL, are asked to do so much more than just produce points. And in my opinion, aided in part by injuries to 2011 first overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in Edmonton, Landeskog (who went second overall behind RNH) has delivered more of everything than any other rookie season.

Allow me to rewind for a moment.

I first met Landeskog midway through last season when the NHL’s Central Scouting department released its midterm rankings, and the Kitchener Rangers’ captain was slotted number one among North American skaters. He dropped by the NHL Network studio in Toronto for a sit down interview, and at age 18, could not have been more relaxed. Almost unlike any other prospect I’d met over the nearly 20 years I’ve been in this business. A huge handshake, unbelievable command of the English language (considering he’d grown up in Sweden) and simply put - a kid who looked like he was ready to be a star.

But, in what way?

Would he be a significant point producer for the Avalanche right away, or was he more likely to be a reliable two way player, who may never have quite the offensive upside as say...the first overall pick?

Here we are, with less than a month to go in the regular season, and Landeskog among rookies is: first in goals (19), second in points (44), first in plus/minus (+20), first by a landslide in shots on goal (235, 13th among all NHL’ers), second in game-winning goals (4), and first in time on ice per game among rookie forwards (18:27).

He’s coming into Buffalo off a game winning goal in overtime versus Anaheim, on a day in which he was too ill to take part in the morning skate. Here’s what he told after the win.

“It was one of those games where I didn’t know if I was going to be able to contribute out there,” he said. “I kind of hung in there. I thought I was holding our line down a little bit. I was struggling most of the game, but those are the kind of games where you have to take it one shift at a time, take short shifts and kind of let my teammates do the job. To get an opportunity in OT, I just wanted to get it on net for it to go in.”
I love the part where he says “I thought I was holding our line down a little bit.” He holds himself accountable no matter what the situation is and others can’t help but follow. It’s why he was a captain in the OHL and will undoubtedly wear a letter for the bulk of his NHL career. There are dozens of other subtle things he does well. Keep an eye out for them. He really is a player you build a franchise around.

Saturday night marks the start of the Sabres final Florida trip of the season, with the Panthers still hanging on to the Southeast division lead. If Ken Hitchcock hadn’t done such a ridiculously good job of bringing it all together in St. Louis, we’d be hearing a lot more about Panthers bench boss Kevin Dineen and his chances of winning the Jack Adams Award as Coach of the Year.

But the player worth watching is someone who has burned the Sabres already this year (with 2-1-3 in 3 games played), defenseman Jason Garrison. A late bloomer to be sure, this 27-year-old trails only Erik Karlsson (18) in goals by defensemen, and is tied with Shea Weber and Nik Kronwall (each with 14).

Garrison plied his trade in Rochester over parts of two seasons, and is now on the cusp of his first big payday. Barring a contract extension from the Panthers, Garrison has the chance to take some really nice offensive numbers -- and a cannon of a shot -- to unrestricted free agency on July 1, likely quadrupling his current salary of $675,000.

On Monday, the Sabres and Lightning will close out their four-game season series, with Buffalo still seeking its first win.

The Bolts are in tough in goal after Mathieu Garon went down with a groin injury recently, leaving a struggling Dwayne Roloson and rookie Dustin Tokarski to man the pipes at this critical juncture.

Yet beyond the crease, and of course the high end skill of Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis, lies another of the NHL’s great bargains in forward Teddy Purcell.

With another year to go on his deal that pays $2.3 million annually, Purcell has already eclipsed last year’s 51 points. He’s continued to show that 17 points in 18 playoff games last spring was no fluke. And his just completed run of 22 points in 11 games was one of the five longest point streaks in the league this season. At age 26, and now a 20-goal scorer in the NHL for the first time, Purcell should be a key piece of the Lightning for years to come.

These are some of the players to watch, even if only for a moment, as we enter the final dozen games of the 2011-12 regular season.
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