Through two rookie camps, Matej Pekar has already riled many a crowd inside LECOM Harborcenter with his penchant for playing physical and getting under the skin of his opponents.
Tonight, the stage will be larger and the opposition will include a pair of All-Star caliber defensemen in Zach Werenski and Seth Jones. But don't expect Pekar to change anything when he takes the ice for his first preseason game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"No, it doesn't change, it doesn't matter who I play against," he said. "If something happens, it happens. I'm just going to focus on my game and I'm not going to focus on who's on the other side."
Pekar has spent the first four days of training camp skating on a line with two experienced veterans in Kyle Okposo and Vladimir Sobotka. Okposo said he's been impressed with the 19-year-old's disposition, trying to absorb as much as possible while still staying true to his identity.
"He's got a good personality on him, wants to learn, wants to get better, works extremely hard - very ratty like that," Okposo said, offering a smirk.
That "ratty" side of his game has been noticeable during camp, even in practice.
"I think that the advice I could give a young player is don't be afraid to be yourself and push the envelope," Okposo said. "I think that's really important now, to express yourself, express your personality and just be who you are. You can't change. … I think he does a really good job of that."
Pekar already showed his willingness to learn during his time on an amateur tryout with Rochester at the end of last season. He marveled at how players performed their routines and took care of their bodies and spoke glowingly of the experience during the offseason.
Tonight marks another step in that maturation. Though Pekar did join the team for the first days of pro camp last fall, he was sent back to juniors without a preseason appearance. He came to this camp with his sights set on earning that opportunity.
"I had it in the back of my mind hoping for it, and it's happening," he said. "I just have to be ready for it."
Wrapping up Phase 1
Ralph Krueger said he's divided his camp into three phases, the first of which ends with tonight's game in Columbus. Players will have a day off tomorrow before entering the second phase, which runs through the team's home-and-home series with Toronto on Friday and Saturday.
The third phase, which encompasses the final two preseason games, is likely when we'll start to see something that will resemble the Sabres' opening-night roster. For now, the coach said he's in no hurry to make drastic cuts from current group of 52.
"I really tried in this phase to make it a teaching phase as best as possible where we clearly bring our principles and concepts right into the depths of our organization," Krueger said. "…We don't feel a big need to cut the numbers down quickly here. We do feel that the group is learning a lot together."
In addition to Pekar, three more forwards will make their Sabres exhibition debuts: forwards Jean-Sebastien Dea, Kyle Olson, and Arttu Ruotsalainen. Defensemen Jacob Bryson and Casey Fitzgerald will also play their first preseason games.
Linus Ullmark will start in net and is expected to split the game with Andrew Hammond.
Here's the full projected lineup based on the morning skate:
49 C.J. Smith - 37 Casey Mittelstadt - 23 Sam Reinhart
73 Matej Pekar - 17 Vladimir Sobotka - 21 Kyle Okposo
68 Victor Olofsson - 74 Rasmus Asplund - 82 Kyle Olson
20 Scott Wilson - 25 Arttu Ruotsalainen - 15 Jean-Sebastien Dea
78 Jacob Bryson - 62 Brandon Montour
19 Jake McCabe - 3 William Borgen
44 Brandon Hickey - 45 Casey Fitzgerald
35 Linus Ullmark
36 Andrew Hammond
PP1: Reinhart, Olofsson, Mittelstadt, Dea, Bryson
PP2: Smith, Asplund, Olson, Okposo, Montour
How to watch
The game will be streamed within the local broadcast market right here on Sabres.com, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops at 7 p.m.