If first impressions are on the line for the young Sabres at the Prospects Challenge, then one can only imagine the pressure on a player like Colin Blackwell. It wasn't long ago that the centerman was without a team to play for this fall, before he joined Buffalo as a last-minute camp invitee.
One game in, Blackwell is making the most of his opportunity. He was a driving force in Buffalo's turnaround on Friday night, scoring twice to give the Sabres a third-period lead in an eventual 4-3 overtime loss to New Jersey.
Blackwell, who played 57 games as a rookie for San Jose of the AHL last season, seemed appreicative of his current situation afterward.
"For me, I played out in the West so I don't think a lot of the people in the East got to see me play last year," he said. "I'm grateful for the opportunity and hopefully I can show my style of play and how I'm capable of playing."
What is that style?
"I'm a little bit smaller than some of the guys out there but I've got a big chip on my shoulder so I play a little bit heavier game," Blackwell, who's listed at 5-feet-9-inches tall and 190 pounds, said. "I like to get pucks down low and be that energy guy out there that gets the boys going, but I can also find the back of the net."
Whether it was nerves or rust, the Sabres were outmatched by a deep Devils squad in the first period. But despite being outshot 14-5, they were able to escape the period tied at one goal apiece thanks to Cliff Pu's marker on the power play.
Although they allowed the Devils to take an early lead in the second - off the stick of Ryan Kujawinski, who scored all three Devils goals in regulation - things very much changed after that. Buffalo began to get pucks down low, and it paid off when C.J. Smith's pass to an unsuspecting Hudson Fasching near the net banked off Fasching's skate and led to Blackwell's game-tying goal.
"I thought we did pretty good in the second and third," Amerks coach Chris Taylor said. "I didn't really like our first but I thought guys responded. I think a lot of nerves were there and they wanted to try real hard but I think the response in the second and third showed a lot of character."
The fact that Blackwell spent the game centering a line with Smith and Fasching, two players who have already appeared in NHL games for Buffalo, was a calculated move by Taylor to get the most out of a player he was relatively unfamiliar with. It paid off.
"It's awesome," Taylor said. "It's great to see and it pushes other guys internally. That's what hockey's all about, is pushing each other. It's not just competition against the other team, its pushing each other and making each other better."
Blackwell scored his second goal off a change 6:48 into the third period, which put the Sabres ahead 3-2. They'd hold that lead until Kujawinski's third goal tied the game with 3:21 remaining in regulation. Michael Kapla ended the game on a breakaway less than a minute into overtime.
In spite of the result, Buffalo's play in the last 40 minutes showed signs of a foundation to build upon over the next two games. As for Blackwell, he'll keep looking to show he can contribute.
"We thought, put him on a good line to see what he can do and obviously he did pretty good," Taylor said. "That's good to see from him, and the next step is, Can he do it again tomorrow?"
A big night for the Glotov line
Taylor said Thursday that he'd be evaluating players based on how they compete at this tournament, and to that end the line of Daniel Muzito-Bagenda, Vasily Glotov and Vaclav Karabacek impressed early and often. The trio's tenacity on the forecheck led to Buffalo's power play in the first period, on which Glotov fed Pu for the Sabres' first goal.
When Taylor sent the line out to begin the second period, their aggressiveness once again ledto a penalty drawn, this time a trip against Glotov. Later in the period, a forced turnover by Muzito-Bagenda led to a Glotov shot off the post. In the third, the trio created the pressure that led to Blackwell's go-ahead goal, with Muzito-Bagenda and Karabacek earning assists.
"They played well," Taylor said. "They played hard and I liked how that line added spark to us, especially late in the first. They were our best line in the first period, so I started them in the second period and they got us going … When you get a line like that going you've got to keep going with them."
Johansson's strong night
The Sabres may not have had a chance to come back had it not been for some strong play early by goaltender Jonas Johansson, whose best save came in the first period when he robbed Nico Hischier of what seemed to be a shot on a wide-open net.
Johansson finished the night with 34 saves on 38 shots.
"I just think he was composed," Taylor said. "There was a lot of traffic in front of him, he made some big saves and they had a couple 3-on-3s, point-blank shots and he was there for it. He gave us a chance after the first because if it wasn't for him, we could've been down 3-1.
"He did a great job keeping us in there and from what I've heard, this is one of his best games so it's great that he's improving."
The Sabres will continue their Prospects Challenge slate Saturday night against the Boston Bruins.Tickets are still available, or you can stream the game live on Sabres.com. The puck drops at 7 p.m.