The page has been turned on preseason hockey and the next chapter is officially here.
Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane will be among the players making their Sabres debuts Thursday night as Buffalo hosts the Ottawa Senators in their regular-season opener at First Niagara Center.
Pregame coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B and Bell TV. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550. Puck drop is scheduled for just after 7 p.m.
Buffalo rolled out the same lines Thursday morning as they had in Wednesday’s practice, with Sam Reinhart replacing an injured Brian Gionta on a line with Kane and Eichel. Gionta is day-to-day with a lower-body injury and will not play against the Senators.
Kane’s regular-season debut in particular has been a long time coming. Although he was traded to the team in February, he did not play in a game for the Sabres last season due to surgery on his left shoulder.
After “re-learning to play hockey” in the preseason and scoring four goals in four games, he’s excited to officially get things going in front of the home crowd.
“I’ve always thought Buffalo was a pretty hostile environment,” he said. “I expect a lot of that, especially heading into the season with the excitement and the build-up for this game and for the rest of the year and I’m looking forward to playing in front of the home fans 41 times.”
PLAYING WITHOUT THE CAPTAIN
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said that given the nature of Gionta’s injury, he probably could have played if the situation called for it. But with three games in five days, the coach didn’t want to risk further injury by playing his captain in the opener.
Defenseman Josh Gorges, who came to Buffalo from Montreal alongside Gionta prior to last season, said that the team is well prepared to handle injuries now and throughout the season.
“It’s disappointing for sure. He’s our captain, he’s the guy that leads the charge and he’s a big, important part of this group. Unfortunately, this is the sport we play,” Gorges said.
“If you want to be a successful team, you need to have depth. You need to have guys that have the ability to step into those roles and your team doesn’t miss a beat and I think we have that.”
Stepping into Gionta’s role among the top six forwards against Ottawa is Reinhart, who at 19 is coming out of his second NHL camp. Reinhart improved his play throughout the preseason, and his later performances suggested to Bylsma that he’ll be able to contribute when the stakes are raised.
“He’s going to offer plays to that line, he’s going to offer smarts to that line, he’s going to offer defensive posture to that line,” Bylsma said. “He’s always thinking the game and puts himself in that position.”
Gionta’s absence also affects his timing as to when he will announce the team’s alternate captains. He did not name them today, but said that three players will wear the “A” on their sweaters tonight. The team will have two regular alternates throughout the season, with a third to be used as a substitute when needed.
Gorges, an alternate captain last season, has been pleased with the depth in the leadership that he’s seen thus far.
“We brought in some veteran guys that can get the job done; they know what it takes to win, they know what it takes to be successful and professional. So all those little intangibles that you bring in, it just adds to the mold,” he said.
“If you only have five or six guys pulling 15, it doesn’t work. But when you have 15 or 16 trying to pull five, it’s going to work at some point. The biggest thing I’ve noticed is that there are no bad guys in this room.”
DEFENSE CLOSER TO HEALTH
Gorges took the ice again with the team during the morning skate and is prepared to play against the Senators after missing a significant portion of camp due to a lower-body injury.
It’s been a tough go for the defensive corps early. Zach Bogosian, Bobby Sanguinetti and 2015-second round pick Brendan Guhle are currently recovering from injury. The preseason also saw Gorges, Rasmus Ristolainen Jake McCabe miss varying amounts of time.
McCabe will dress as the team’s seventh defenseman for warmups against Ottawa and Matt Donovan is expected to be a scratch. Especially given the continued absence of Bogosian, who was projected to get a lot of minutes on the backend, Gorges said that there is no clear cut top pair in the team’s current defensive structure.
“I think this is going to be a committee-type defense, I think we’re going to rely on all six guys,” he said. “Some nights you’re going to play more depending on the situation of the game, and we’re going to need everyone to be able to chip in and play a regular shift, you know 18-21 minutes.”
26 Matt Moulson – 90 Ryan O’Reilly – 63 Tyler Ennis
9 Evander Kane – 15 Jack Eichel – 23 Sam Reinhart
28 Zemgus Girgensons – 22 Johan Larsson – 82 Marcus Foligno
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 17 David Legwand – 88 Jamie McGinn
25 Carlo Colaiacovo – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
6 Mike Weber – 46 Cody Franson
4 Josh Gorges – 3 Mark Pysyk
40 Robin Lehner
31 Chad Johnson