TORONTO – As he prepared for his shootout attempt Sunday night, Buffalo Sabres center Mikhail Grigorenko had only one move on his mind.
It was a move that was risky and required a lot of skill to pull off. The Sabres needed a goal in the bottom of the third frame against the Toronto Maple Leafs in order to stay alive. If he missed or was stopped, Buffalo would lose.
The time had come for Grigorenko’s shot and he looked to veteran teammate Chris Stewart for advice.
“I was a little nervous because if you don’t score that one, it’s embarrassing. So I asked Stewart if it’s OK if I try it,” Grigorenko said. “And he said, ‘Yeah, for sure. Just go and do it.’”
So Grigorenko waited for the whistle, circled around the puck and skated in on goal. Busting in on goaltender Jonathan Bernier, he deked, shifted left, reached out with the puck with his right hand and in a Forsbergian feat, slipped the puck in to extend the game.
WATCH THE MOVE
Toronto scored again in the top of the fourth and Sabres wing Joel Armia tied it up again. Tyler Bozak beat goaltender Andrey Makarov and Bernier would shut the door to claim a 3-2 victory at Air Canada Centre.
“I had a lot of confidence in that move so I just went, tried it and scored,” Grigorenko said.
That level of confidence hasn’t always been there for the 12th overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft. His movements from the NHL to junior and back again have been well-documented. He’s been able to take those experiences and grow from them.
“Previous years helped me a lot. I learned a lot of things,” he said. “I learned how to be a better hockey player, a better person and this year, I’m just trying to be myself. I also have more confidence on the ice and off the ice as well. The guys are super nice. I’m having so much fun every day going to the rink.”
He’s impressed the coaching staff through this year’s training camp after adding muscle over the summer to his now-sturdier 219-pound frame.
“I’m a strong believer in good things happening when you do the right thing more often than not,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said. “He did the right thing this summer by working himself into better shape. He came into camp with a real positive attitude, wanted to earn things versus just [being] given things.
“He’s had a tremendous attitude from the get-go. Every practice he’s working and it’s great to see him get rewarded tonight.”
Grigorenko played on the top line with Cody Hodgson and Stewart. He had several other offensive chances on the rush and played strong defense as well. He skated 24:56 and had four shots on net.
Twenty-five seconds into the second period, Grigorenko put Buffalo ahead 1-0. Driving hard to the net, he skillfully knocked a backhand feed from Hodgson out of the air and then put it in past Bernier.
“It was a great play in the neutral zone by Cody. The Toronto defenseman really didn’t see me sneaking behind him. I was all alone,” Grigorenko said. “Cody made a fantastic pass from his backhand – backhand sauce – I don’t know how he made it. I just caught it and shot it and it went in.”
Buffalo took a 2-0 lead when Nicolas Deslauriers deflected a shot in from Rasmus Ristolainen 9:24 into the second period.
The Maple Leafs cut the lead in half 59 seconds later when, after a faceoff in their own end, they worked the puck up to Phil Kessel on the wing. Kessel raced in and beat Makarov stick side.
Toronto tied the game with 10:11 to play in the third when James Van Riemsdyk found the back of the net on the power play. Overtime solved nothing, leading to the deciding shootout.
KALETA & LARSSON INJURED
Buffalo didn’t make it out of the game unscathed.
Forward Patrick Kaleta caught a Morgan Rielly slap shot to the head with 8:28 remaining in the first period. Kaleta immediately tossed off his helmet and skated right to the Buffalo dressing room, followed by the training staff. He did not return.
He wasn’t the only Sabre to sustain a game-ending injury in the first period.
Center Johan Larsson was elbowed in the face by Petter Granberg with 21.6 seconds left. He was taken to the dressing room as well.
Nolan said both players would be re-evaluated when the team returned to Buffalo.
Kaleta is working his way back from a knee injury sustained last November. He’s been a full participant for all of training camp thus far and played Tuesday night for the first time. This upper-body injury, depending on its severity, could be another hindrance in his path back to the NHL.
“We’ll cross our fingers overnight,” Nolan said. “Patty came in, he worked his tail off to get back here and all of a sudden this thing [happened], so we’re crossing our fingers and hoping for the best.”
When Chris Stewart took a 10-minute misconduct during a play that included a fight between Mike Weber and Colton Orr, Buffalo found themselves skating with nine forwards for half of the second period.
“I was really happy with our effort tonight,” Nolan said. “From the start of training camp, the one thing we wanted to instill was a compete level and a battle level and a work ethic. Tonight, they certainly did that, especially with the young lineup we had.”
A CLOSER LOOK
Makarov backed up three games for the Sabres last season and finally touched the ice for his first NHL action when he started the game Sunday night.
After an up-and-down showing in a prospects tournament earlier this month, Makarov played a strong game. He didn’t see much action early in the game, facing only one shot through the first 10 minutes. However, the Maple Leafs eventually put pressure on, especially with the man advantage. Makarov ended the game with 27 saves.
Makarov said he’s put that tournament behind him and Nolan has only focused on what the 21-year-old goaltender has done in training camp.
“The main camp is what these guys are looking forward to. It’s nice to play rookie camps, but they’re all looking forward to this camp and what they do here is the most important,” Nolan said. “I think maybe it was a good learning experience in Traverse City and a good learning experience last year. I was really glad for the young man.”
Before the game, Nolan said Makarov’s playing time Sunday night would depend on his performance. That he stayed in net through regulation and overtime was telling. He almost certainly didn’t expect to see a shootout against the likes of van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri.
“My first game, it kind of surprised me, going to a shootout against the best players,” he said. “We will work on that.”
Makarov was helped by a stout defensive front, which blocked 21 shots over the course of the game.
The Sabres will have a few days of practice before their next game on Wednesday against the Washington Capitals at First Niagara Center. The Rochester Americans open camp on Monday, so more cuts are likely coming.