In some respects, the final game of the preseason for the Sabres on Friday night is a dress rehearsal. The line of Evander Kane, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart will get its first in-game look after practicing together at various points of camp, and Robin Lehner will get one final tune-up start ahead of the regular season.
Due to the various injuries currently hampering the Sabres' roster, however, their game in Ottawa will also remain an audition for several of the players looking to crack the opening-night lineup. Three defensemen looking to stick around - Brendan Guhle, Casey Nelson and Justin Falk - will be paired with three veterans from last season in Jake McCabe, Josh Gorges and Cody Franson, respectively.
The paths they've taken to get to this point are quite different -- just look at where the three of them were a year ago. Falk had already played parts of six NHL seasons. Guhle was a second-round draft pick entering his first camp. Then there was Nelson, who wasn't thinking about NHL roster battles at all.
"It's a dream come true, that's for sure," Nelson said after the morning skate on Friday. "It's definitely something I never thought would happen, even a year ago. But, you know, it's been a dream. I'm just going to keep overcoming stuff and I've just got to keep working every day and do the best I can."
Nelson's path to the NHL was nothing ordinary. He played three seasons in the North American Hockey League before earning a walk-on role at Minnesota State University. He struggled in his freshman year there, but by the end of his junior season he had become one of the most sought-after college free agents.. The Sabres signed him to a deal in March of last season, and he rewarded them with four assists in seven games.
So far in this camp, he's picked up exactly where he left off. Sabres coach Dan Bylsma has called Nelson's presence on the ice "commanding," and went so far as to say he could see him earning a top-six role to open the season. The team's current situation on defense - with Zach Bogosian and Dmitry Kulikov both rehabbing injuries and Rasmus Ristolainen negotiating a new deal - certainly can't hurt his odds.
Nelson's own approach has been simple. He knows firsthand that the opportunities in this game don't always come often.
"If you do [get one] you've got to take it and try to work with it and do the best you can," he said.
He's earned his share of the opportunities so far. The game on Friday will be his fourth straight and his fifth of the preseason. Another good performance against Ottawa, and he might just have another game to prepare for next Thursday against Montreal.
"It's definitely been a long road to get here," he said. "But I'm glad I'm here."
Full roster for Ottawa
The Senators have already whittled their roster down to 25 players, and what the Sabres see tonight should look similar to what they see come the regular season. Kyle Turris, Bobby Ryan, Mark Stone, Erik Karlsson and Dion Phaneuf are among the names listed on their game roster.
Starting in net
Lehner will get the nod for the third time this preseason. He played well enough to earn a win last time out against his former team, a 3-2 overtime victory for the Sabres at home on Sept. 27. He's also coming off of a 28-save shutout of the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday.
9 Evander Kane - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
70 Alexander Nylander - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 52 Hudson Fasching
63 Tyler Ennis - 22 Johan Larsson - 82 Marcus Foligno
44 Nicolas Deslauriers - 27 Derek Grant - 12 Brian Gionta
45 Brendan Guhle - 29 Jake McCabe
4 Josh Gorges - 34 Casey Nelson
41 Justin Falk - 6 Cody Franson
40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson
First unit: Kane, Ennis, Eichel, Reinhart, McCabe
Second unit: Gionta, Nelson, Larsson, Franson, Grant
UPDATE: 2:10 p.m.
The Buffalo Sabres today announced the team has recalled goaltender Linus Ullmark from the Rochester Americans (AHL). The team also announced it has released three players from its training camp roster.
Forward Cal O'Reilly and defenseman Taylor Fedun have been loaned to the Rochester Americans (AHL) pending waivers. Defenseman Tyson Strachan has been released from his tryout and will report to Rochester for training camp.
The Sabres now have 29 players (17 forwards, nine defensemen and three goaltenders) on their training camp roster.
CLICK HERE FOR AN UPDATED CAMP ROSTER
You can hear the game live on WGR 550, with Dan Dunleavy and Rob Ray on the call. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. with highlights to follow right here on Sabres.com.