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Kulikov to make debut as Sabres host Leafs

Position battles continue on Friday; O'Reilly returning soon

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

A busy week for the Sabres ends on Friday with the second of back-to-back games against the Toronto Maple Leafs. It's the final game of the preseason at KeyBank Center, with the remainder of the exhibition schedule set to take place on the road next week.

Whether you're coming down for the game or watching on MSG, there'll be quite a bit to look for. Let's run down a few things you'll want to pay attention to. 


1. Dmitry's debut

With seven games at the World Cup of Hockey already under his belt, Dmitry Kulikov should already be in good game shape, and we already know from watching him what he can bring to the table: a strong, physical presence with the ability to quickly move the puck up to his forwards.

The question, then, is how long it will take Kulikov to mesh with his new teammates and to fully grow comfortable in Dan Bylsma's system. The conversations Bylsma has had with him so far suggest it might not take long. 

"At this point of time, he's probably right now one of the more intelligent players in talking with him," Bylsma said. "Just got finished with a conversation with him about penalty kill - he's asking the next question, he knows what the next question is. So, he may be a guy who picks it up a lot quicker than some college player from Bowling Green or something." 

Bylsma, for the record, was a college player at Bowling Green


2. Position battles

Guys who are competing both for forward and defensive spots on the Sabres' roster will be in the lineup on Friday. In the forward group you have Derek Grant playing his third game in a row, this time with another guy expected to factor into the competition - Justin Bailey - playing on his wing. Nicholas Baptiste is in the lineup too, and his two-point performance in his preseason debut against Ottawa has earned him a promotion to playing on the wing alongside Sam Reinhart.  

You can find more about Baptiste in today's game preview with Brian Duff:

Video: Sabres vs. Maple Leafs game preview

On defense, meanwhile, Casey Nelson and Justin Falk are two guys making a case for the Sabres roster out of camp. Bylsma said that Nelson, a rookie out of Minnesota State, looked like a seasoned NHL veteran following Buffalo's game against the Wild. On Friday, he said he could foresee a scenario where Nelson not only makes the team, but breaks into the top six. 

"I can see that for sure," Bylsma said. "I can definitely see that being the case. I like it to be a little bit of depth and be spoiled by having that option or be forced to have that option with Casey being a guy that even possibly you need to put in the top six, put him in an opening day lineup."

Bylsma praised Falk, meanwhile, for being a guy that's been tough to play against in his preseason action thus far. He was part of a defensive effort that allowed Toronto to take only 21 shots in regulation on Thursday.

Falk said that his experience playing in Minnesota's organization under coach Mike Yeo, who was previously an assistant coach under Bylsma in Pittsburgh, has helped ease his transition to Buffalo.

"I can tell the terminology and all the systems and all that are very similar, the style of coaching," he said. "For my sake that makes it an easier adjustment."


3. Reinforcements on the horizon 

There might be less room in the lineup for players looking to crack the NHL roster come next week. With the World Cup of Hockey officially over and the Sabres' next game still three days away, it's possible we see the return of Jack Eichel and/or Ryan O'Reilly when the Sabres play their next game in Marquette, Mich. on Tuesday.

Eichel has already rejoined practice over the past few days, while O'Reilly - fresh off of winning the tournament with Team Canada on Thursday - has yet to establish a timetable for his return. 

"I wouldn't be surprised if Ryan showed up tonight, showed up tomorrow morning," Bylsma said. "That's the kind of player he is. But we'll set up a timeframe for him to get back into practice. He's played quite a few games now … we've got a few days off here and I'm sure we'll see him around here the next few days and hopefully he'll be rejoining practice before we go out for Marquette."


Projected lineup

44 Nicolas Deslauriers - 23 Sam Reinhart - 73 Nicholas Baptiste
56 Justin Bailey - 27 Derek Grant - 12 Brian Gionta
26 Matt Moulson - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 63 Tyler Ennis
71 Evan Rodrigues - 72 Jean Dupuy - 10 Cole Schneider

Defense: 77 Dmitry Kulikov, 34 Casey Nelson, 29 Jake McCabe, 81 Mac Bennett, 67 Brady Austin, 41 Justin Falk

40 Robin Lehner
33 Jason Kasdorf

Power play
First Unit: Reinhart, Gionta, Moulson, Ennis, Nelson
Second Unit: Baptiste, Girgensons, Kulikov, McCabe, Schneider


How to watch

You can still purchase tickets to come see the game tonight, tune in live on MSG or listen on WGR 550. The gang is all here, with Rick Jeanneret, Rob Ray, Dan Dunleavy, Brad May and Brian Duff all on deck to kick things off with Tops Sabres Gamenight at 6:30 p.m. 

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