UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - With only three days to prepare and six new faces in the lineup - plus another behind the bench - the Sabres came to Penn State for their first game of the preseason with the goal of playing a simple, aggressive game.
The basic objective outlined by coach Ralph Krueger was to limit time spent defending by extending possession with high-pressure play on offense. Though it became closer than they would have liked, the Sabres were largely pleased with how they played to that end in a 5-4, overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"We just had a lot of pace," Krueger said. "We played aggressive, everybody was on their toes, we managed the puck really well and pushed them on their heels. We were in their end most of the time. We had lots of long puck possession, which we were really striving for today."
Jack Eichel buried a breakaway shot with eight seconds remaining in overtime to preserve the victory after puck management miscues allowed the Penguins to erase a 4-1 deficit in the third period.
Save for those costly errors, it was a dominant performance from the Sabres against a young Penguins lineup. The Sabres outshot the Penguins, 47-18, and earned goals from John Gilmour, Conor Sheary, Tage Thompson and Henri Jokiharju to establish their lead in the first 40 minutes.
Carter Hutton only faced three shots in 29:22 before giving way to Jonas Johansson, who went 12-for-15 on save opportunities.
Krueger felt that overly complicated play with the puck led to the Penguins' comeback, which came on the strength of three goals scored in a span of 8:46 to open the final period. Even then, he felt they clamped down and picked up where they had left off heading into the second intermission.
"Quite clearly, we just got complicated with the puck and we gave them some momentum, some confidence, fell on our heels," Krueger said. "But I thought the group settled down after the 4-4 [goal] and dominated right to the end and really deserved to win it then."
Gilmour steps up
Video: POSTGAME: Gilmour
After signing Gilmour to a one-year deal on July 1, Sabres general manager Jason Botterill said the defenseman's ability to jump up in the play would make him an ideal fit in the Sabres' system. He put that skill on display to net Buffalo's first goal of the preseason in the first period.
The play began with Jimmy Vesey carrying the puck out of the Sabres' zone along the right wall with two Penguins defenders stationed in front of him. Gilmour found a lane on the weak side and sped by both of them, then buried a hard wrist shot across the body of goaltender Casey DeSmith.
"I definitely think it's part of my game, getting up ice," Gilmour told Brian Duff after the first period. "I think I'm a pretty decent skater so if I have a chance to join the rush, that's what I'm going to do. But, more importantly, I'm going to be quick to get back and help out the defense first and foremost."
It was a promising start to exhibition play for the defenseman, who's looking to crack the NHL roster after leading the AHL with 20 goals and 54 points last season. He also tallied an assist on Jokiharju's goal in the second and used his speed to pinch down along the boards and extend possessions throughout the night.
"They want us to be aggressive," he said. "If we have a chance to be the first guy on the puck and go down the wall there, we've got to do that and help our forwards out. They're going to come back and take our spots on the blue line, so we feel the support there in every zone and we're confident to play aggressive."
Strong in front
Establishing a consistent net-front presence is one area the Sabres are looking to improve upon from recent seasons, and it was an area of emphasis coming into their first preseason game. They responded well, turning that presence into a pair of goals in the second period.
"I think that was one of our main focuses going in, getting guys in front of the net and creating chaos and traffic in front of their net," Thompson said. "I just tried to do that all night and be strong on the puck and down low behind the net. Those were kind of my focuses heading into the game."
Thompson used his large frame to screen goaltender Tristan Jerry on a point shot from Rasmus Dahlin, then buried the rebound for his power-play goal in the second. Earlier in the period, Jokiharju scored on a shot from the left circle with Evan Rodrigues jostling for position in the crease.
Those goals were microcosms of a larger picture, with forwards on all four lines rotating to the net-front throughout the night.
"We started with a lot of puck possession, not enough presence, and we really asked the guys to increase the pressure on the net and they did," Krueger said. "It was in that second period, it was truly outstanding when you see how much pressure there was and we need to continue to build on that."
Video: POSTGAME: Cozens
Another player who wasn't shy about attacking the net was 18-year-old Dylan Cozens, who made it a point to play confidently in his first preseason game.
"I felt good out there," Cozens said. "I wanted to play with confidence, I don't want to play scared. I don't want to play like I'm going to make mistakes because then I'll make mistakes, so I just went out there and played with confidence. It's the same game I've played my whole life. It's not that much different, so I just stuck to what I know."
Centering a line with Tage Thompson and Remi Elie, Cozens was able to showcase the package of size and speed that made him the seventh overall pick in this summer's draft. Most of all, he impressed his coach with his demeanor.
"I think emotionally, there's so many things for him to step into this space for the first time," Krueger said. "He managed it really well. He was very calm on the bench. He's an energetic kid trying to learn every shift.
"It was an exciting coaching opportunity for me to stand behind somebody with that much skill in their very first game at this level. He's got some exciting years ahead of him."
The Sabres continue their preseason schedule in Columbus on Tuesday. The game will be streamed live within the local broadcast market on Sabres.com, with puck drop set for 7 p.m.