Phil Housley admitted he might be a bit nervous when the puck drops tonight between the Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens, marking not only his official return as a Sabre but also his first game as an NHL head coach.
But for any nerves that might be felt, they should be overshadowed by the sense of optimism on display in the Buffalo dressing room on Thursday morning. Opening night marks a fresh start for the team, with a new coach, a new style of play and nine new players penciled in the lineup.
Seeing the blue and gold T-shirts draped on the seats at KeyBank Center during the morning skate only added to the excitement.
"I think I'll be a little nervous until the game gets going," Housley said. "I'm excited too. I think guys have worked tremendously hard through camp, and I think the guys are in a good place right now. They're going to be ready to play when the puck drops."
Video: MTL at BUF Preview (10/5/17)
In training camp, we saw the early stages of a team that expects to bring an exciting brand of hockey to Buffalo. Practices have been high on pace and competition, indicative of the fast-paced style Housley expects from his players.
The energy Housley has brought has been reciprocated by the players, according to Sabres forward Jack Eichel.
"The overall structure and culture, it's been pretty good and coach Housley has been fantastic since day one," Eichel said. "We're really excited about our opportunity tonight to play in front of our home fans and show them what we've been working on and just trying to play an exciting game and win a hockey game."
The Sabres have lacked strong starts in the past. They're winless in their last four season openers, including a 4-1 loss to the Canadiens last season. In each of the last two seasons, slows starts created what proved to be insurmountable deficits in the standings.
This season, the Sabres are looking to change their reputation in the league. It starts tonight.
"We've got something to prove," Ryan O'Reilly said. "It's time to win. There's no excuses now. Our new staff has been great, our coaching has been outstanding so far. It's on the players to make an impact."
Coverage of tonight's game begins at 6:30 p.m. with the GMC Pregame Show on MSG-B. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550, with puck drop scheduled for 7 p.m.
Sabres announce alternate captains
Jason Botterill said Wednesday that the team would begin the season with a leadership group by committee rather than naming an individual as captain. The Sabres announced Thursday morning that Eichel, O'Reilly, Zach Bogosian and Kyle Okposo will rotate as alternate captains.
"Our coaches sat down and really evaluated the situation," Housley said. "We felt like the guys we named we have total confidence in. Talking with Jason, he was very comfortable with the decision so we named four alternate captains at this point. There's a lot of good leaders on that team and we're going to rely on all of them to be a part of it."
Marco Scandella was held out of preseason play as he worked back from offseason hip surgery, so tonight will mark his first game in a Sabres uniform. Housley said he expects Scandella to acclimate to game speed as the night goes on.
"Just in his own game I think he can bring a physical element to our team, protecting our net front, playing physical down low," Scandella said. "But also he can add to our rush offensively. He's got great mobility."
Scouting the Habs
The Canadiens ended their preseason with back-to-back victories after going winless in their first six exhibition games. They beat the Senators 9-2 on Saturday, led by two goals apiece from Brendan Gallagher and Jacob De La Rose.
Gallagher is always a player to watch in these games, as he tends to have a knack for scoring goals against the Sabres. He scored twice in the season opener last year, and his 10 goals in 18 games against Buffalo are the most he's scored against any opponent.
Gallagher will have the added benefit of playing on a top line centered by the newly acquired Jonathan Drouin, who will make his Canadiens debut after being acquired from Tampa Bay over the summer. Max Pacioretty, who led the team with 67 points last season, will play on the opposite wing.
"If you really look at that forward group, they've got a lot of talent up front. One thing we're going to focus on is really making good puck decisions through the neutral zone, because they have a terrific transition game and we don't want to feed that."
The player to watch on defense is rookie Victor Mete. He's only 19, but the fourth-round draft pick from last summer played his way onto the Montreal roster this preseason and has been praised for his poise and skating ability. As of Wednesday, he was practicing on the top defensive pair alongside Shea Weber.
Bogosian will not play due to a lower-body injury, opening the door for Matt Tennyson to start on a pair with Scandella. Tennyson, 27, scored six assists in 45 games for Carolina last season and has impressed with his play in training camp.
"His play speaks for itself," Housley said. "I think he really understands our system. Especially defensively. We talked this morning about really playing sound defense. That's where it starts for us, and he's done a terrific job but he also really picks his spot well up the ice, adding to the rush."
Matt Moulson and Josh Gorges are expected to sit as healthy scratches, while Robin Lehner will get the start in net. Here's a look at the projected lineup in its entirety:
9 Evander Kane - 15 Jack Eichel - 29 Jason Pominville
67 Benoit Pouliot - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 23 Sam Reinhart - 25 Seth Griffith
22 Johan Larsson - 10 Jacob Josefson - 17 Jordan Nolan
82 Nathan Beaulieu - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
6 Marco Scandella - 5 Matt Tennyson
19 Jake McCabe - 93 Victor Antipin
40 Robin Lehner
31 Chad Johnson