Nicholas Baptiste said back at development camp in July that his time to make a statement for his NHL club was now. He's three years removed from being selected by the Sabres with the No. 69 pick in the third round, and now has a full pro season under his belt with Rochester.
He made his statement at development camp with a goal and an assist in the Blue & Gold Scrimmage, but he took it to another level with a hat trick in Buffalo's 6-3 loss to New Jersey to open the Prospects Challenge at HarborCenter on Saturday night.
Baptiste, 23, is a veteran among his fellow prospects. He's put it on himself to perform like one throughout the summer, and his performance Saturday was evidence of that.
"It was really important," Baptiste said following the game. "Any time you're in front of Sabres brass and they're watching, it's important to show what you can do. I thought I did that tonight and hopefully I can continue throughout camp."
Outside of Baptiste's scoring, the game belonged to the Devils. After his second goal gave the Sabres a 2-1 lead in the second period, New Jersey scored four straight before three minutes passed in the third period. Baptiste's third goal, a deflection off a shot from defenseman Devante Stephens, briefly gave Buffalo hope late in the third, but New Jersey answered with an empty-net goal seconds later.
Brandon Gignac scored twice for the Devils, while Blake Coleman, John Quenneville, Nathan Bastian and Blake Speers added a goal apiece. The Devils scored five times on 29 shots against goalie Linus Ullmark, who came out of the first period perfect on eight save opportunities.
"We're young, there are a lot of young guys," Baptiste said."It's their first time playing in a big-time game with that atmosphere with the Sabres crest on their chest. You get a lead, you get amped up. And then they score and it's pretty deflating."
It's a testament to his experience that Baptiste wasn't affected by the highs and lows. He took seven shots, including Buffalo's first of the game. He scored twice in the second period, first with a top-shelf goal off a turn-around feed from Eric Cornel on the power play and then with a quick, strong shot to the far side on an odd-man rush.
His deflection of Stephens' shot sealed the hat trick, but he easily could have scored four. Minutes before his third goal, Baptiste rang a backhand shot off the post.
"I was kind of turning a little bit, I was a little off balance and I just tried to get something on it," Baptiste said. "It was a great shot from the point, and that's my game, going to the net and being around those areas."
Staying within his game was one of the lessons Baptiste learned during his first year in Rochester. At times, he said, he'd focus too much on offense. When he shifted his focus to playing with speed and getting to his spots, the offense came on his own.
His role on Saturday went beyond offense. He was 5-for-6 on faceoffs and a regular presence both on the power play and the penalty kill.
"Nick's an older guy on this squad," said Rochester Americans coach Dan Lambert, who was behind the bench for Buffalo."He's going to be asked to do things that maybe he didn't get an opportunity to do last season and I thought he did pretty well."
After impressing in his time at development camp, Alexander Nylander came away with little to show for his game on Saturday. He finished without a point and was on the ice for three goals against.
"I thought he made a few plays," Lambert said. "It didn't seem like he clicked with his linemates that much, but in saying that I didn't think we did a very good job moving the puck up to any forward."
The Sabres conclude the Prospects Challenge against the Bruins on Monday night, while the Devils will face the Bruins on Sunday. Both games are set for a 7 p.m. puck drop. Tickets for each game are on sale for $10. Monday's Sabres game can be heard on ESPN 1520.