PITTSBURGH - In many ways, the Buffalo Sabres faced their first true test of the preseason against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night. It was the closest the Sabres had come to icing their full lineup under Phil Housley - albeit without three of their top defensemen - and they had the two-time reigning champions as a measuring stick.
Housley said he wanted to see his team shoot more often than it had in previous games, and he wanted them to play as fast as the Penguins - if not faster. The Sabres outshot the Penguins 42-27, but a late comeback attempt fell short in a 5-4 loss.
"I just liked the way we competed tonight," Housley said. "We've been talking about shot mentality but 42 shots is a lot of rubber towards their net. I thought we took a big step forward tonight."
The Sabres kept pace with the Penguins for much of the night - Housley thought it was the fastest his team has looked in the preseason - but a series of back-to-back goals from Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin scored within a 49-second span of the third period gave the Penguins a 5-2 lead with 13 minutes remaining.
Both goals came on breakdowns; Kessel split two defensemen for his goal and Malkin scored his on the power play. As the players continue to learn a new system, Housley said, those things can be fixed. The coach was more focused on what he did see from his team, like their near comeback at the end of the game.
The Sabres pulled Chad Johnson early, setting themselves up for nearly three minutes at 6-on-5. They dominated from thereon out, scoring first when Jacob Josefson cleaned up a sitting puck in the crease and then again on a shot from Evander Kane with 19.6 seconds remaining.
"This is not going to happen overnight but I really liked that we fought until the end, showed a lot of character," Housley said. "The things that we can correct, the technical things, those things we can correct. But I just liked the compete right down to the wire."
There was a lot to like early as well. Victor Antipin's goal to put the Sabres on the board in the first period was a perfect example of what Housley expects from his defensemen on the rush. After Taylor Fedun began a breakout on the left side, Antipin skated hard up the ice and was the benefactor of a perfect pass from Zemgus Girgensons.
Antipin went far-side with a wrist shot from the edge of the right faceoff circle:
Video: BUF@PIT: Antipin slides shot five-hole to knot score
"We've been working on it in practice, that second wave, third wave coming in," Girgensons said.
"[Kyle Okposo] did a great job pulling both D men to the net and left him all alone there."
Nicolas Deslauriers scored to tie the game at two goals apiece in the second period, with his marker standing out as a product of the strong forecheck that the Sabres displayed throughout the night. Deslauriers ended up positioned in the slot, where he was able to tap home a deflected puck:
Video: BUF@PIT: Deslauriers punches in the tying goal
"Especially our line, we had a forecheck," Deslauriers said. "I think our first five or six shifts were in the zone their zone. That's the way to start a game and I think you don't get 41 shots without trying. I think we had a shot mentality and we can probably shoot more."
Of course, as with any loss, there are areas to work on. Jake Guentzel and Sidney Crosby both scored goals around the net, while Justin Schultz added a goal on the power play.
But with the regular season still a week from Thursday, Housley and his players feel they have plenty to build on.
"That's NHL competition," Kane said. "That's the type of team we're going to play in the regular season. Tonight was kind of our first test as a group with that. I thought there were a lot of good things that we did."
Kane gets physical
In addition to scoring a goal and tallying five shots on net, Kane led the Sabres with eight hits. His physicality allowed him to create a turnover in the first period that nearly led to a scoring chance with Jack Eichel.
"It's part of my game," Kane said. "It doesn't happen every night where I'm going to have eight or nine hits, but once in a blue moon it's good to get it out of the system."
Kane drew the attention of Pittsburgh enforcer Ryan Reaves early, with things coming to a head when both players were assessed matching double minors for roughing late in the second period. While Housley would rather have his leading returning goal scorer on the ice than in the box, he liked the message Kane's combativeness sent.
"Evander played a physical game, real hard right out of the gate," Housley said. "Sure, there are things we don't want him to do but I think it sends a good message to our team. One of the leaders on our group is going to stand up for our hockey team. Do we want him in the box for four minutes? No. But I thought it was an excellent gesture on his part."
Nolan to join Sabres Thursday
The Sabres claimed forward Jordan Nolan off of waivers from the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday morning, and it sounds like he'll be with the team in time for practice on Thursday.
"I think he's a terrific hockey player," Housley said. "He plays a fast game, he can get on the forecheck, he brings another element that we don't have in a physical aspect, so I'm looking forward to working with him starting tomorrow."
Preseason finale is Friday
The Sabres will conclude their preseason at KeyBank Center against the New York Islanders on Friday night. Tickets for the game are still available and can be found here.
Can't make it? Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops at 7 p.m.