If you had thought about what the storyline might end up being prior to Buffalo's preseason home opener on Tuesday night, you probably wouldn't have considered Derek Grant. Kyle Okposo was making his Sabres debut, and Tyler Ennis was playing in his first game since ending last season early with a concussion. Robin Lehner was also making his first start since a season-ending injury, and against his former team at that.
Yet there was Grant, forcing his name into the conversation yet again with a three-point performance in his own Sabres debut. He scored a goal and an assist in regulation and then set up Jake McCabe's game-winning goal in overtime in a 3-2 win for the Sabres over the Ottawa Senators, only the latest installment in a series of good impressions that he's has made in his short time in Buffalo.
"You've got to try to do what you can," Grant said after the win. "There's obviously not a long opportunity sometimes. You've got to take advantage of the chances you get and I just tried to go out there and work as hard as I could and good things happen."
Grant is a name that has popped up often over the last week in discussions about the competition for a forward spot on Buffalo's roster. He's been a prolific scorer in the AHL, but has only played 40 NHL games in four professional seasons, including 15 last season for the Calgary Flames.
He was challenged by his coaches on Tuesday, playing as the second-line center and matched up against established NHL players in Zack Smith, Derick Brassard and Bobby Ryan. He logged 15:36 of ice time, including 2:49 on the power play and 55 seconds on the penalty kill, and drew a penalty too.
"I think you take every opportunity you can to prove you can play there," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said when asked about Grant's performance. "He's had four days and he's had four good days. So yes, he's gonna get another opportunity because of that."
The Sabres trailed 1-0 when Grant made a play to get behind the defense and fed Nicholas Baptiste across the net for a goal late in the second period. He was the recipient of a good play by Hudson Fasching and Baptiste in the third, this time catching the puck in the corner of the crease and tapping it into the open net to tie the game with 4:41 remaining in regulation.
In overtime, Grant worked his way around a defender high in the zone and passed the puck up to McCabe in front of the net. McCabe got in alone on Ottawa goaltender Matthew O'Connor and squeezed the game-winning goal between his pads.
"He's just a guy that does everything right," McCabe said of Grant. "He's a 200-foot player. He's very responsible on our end and, as you can see, he can make plays in their end."
Another name we've heard often over the summer was that of Baptiste, who scored at the Blue & Gold Scrimmage at development camp and then had a five-point performance in two games at the Prospects Challenge, including a hat trick in the Sabres' first game against New Jersey. He also scored during a scrimmage at training camp on Friday.
Video: GRANT: Postgame
Those games, however, were against prospects and players who have since been sent back to juniors. These preseason games are his chance to show he can do it against NHL talent, and Bylsma said his performance on Tuesday has likely earned him another opportunity.
"I will say this and continue to say it, we're going to have 22 or 23 people on our roster at the start of the hockey season," Bylsma said. "I see our team as 32, 34 deep. Last year we had 14 players come up for us … those players are in competition for those games right now."
He said he wanted to play the entirety of his preseason opener so he could earn a win against his former team, and that's exactly what Robin Lehner did against the Senators. He stopped all but two of the 39 shots he faced.
"It's a preseason game, he needs to get back in the net and he needs to get two, three games here on the regular season," Bylsma said. "But I do think it was special against his old team, Ottawa. He kind of gets that twinkle in his eye when he's playing his old team again and you saw it tonight."
Bylsma said he didn't think anything would get by Lehner at the time Ottawa scored its first goal, a strange deflection that bounced off the helmet of Sabres defenseman Mac Bennett and then off the leg of Ottawa forward Chris Neil and into the net. Neither Lehner nor Neil had even realized the Senators had scored.
The only other blemish on his night came 25 seconds into the third period, when Derick Brassard also managed to clean up a deflection off a defender in front of the net. The game was Lehner's from that point on, whether he was robbing Kyle Turris with the glove from point-blank range or stoning Mike Hoffman with his pad.
"It was a good game," Lehner said. "I felt like a lot of [what] the coaching staff was working on was working. I still have a lot left. It's a good stepping stone to the beginning of the season."
The last two years have been tumultuous for Lehner, who first saw his final season in Ottawa cut short due to a concussion and then sustained an ankle injury on opening night that limited his first season in Buffalo to 21 games.
Lehner stayed in Buffalo to train over the summer and came to camp having lost a significant amount of weight. He chose to forego the World Cup of Hockey in favor of spending as much time with the Buffalo's training staff as possible in preparation for an admittedly important season in his career.
"I worked hard this summer," he said. "I'm not exactly where I want to be yet, but I felt good out there."
Coming up next
The Sabres have a practice day on Wednesday before embarking for another set of back-to-back games, which begins against the Toronto Maple Leafs in St. Catharines, Ont. on Thursday. That game begins at 7 p.m. and can be seen live on MSG or heard on WGR 550.
The Sabres then play the Maple Leafs again on Friday in their final home game of the preseason at KeyBank Center, which also begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are for sale.