It's opening night for the Buffalo Sabres, and that's reason enough to be excited for coach Dan Bylsma. He woke up feeling optimistic even in the wake of injuries hampering his lineup, most recently with Jack Eichel sustaining a high-ankle sprain in practice on Wednesday.
"It's a special feeling waking up today," Bylsma said. "It's the start of the season and tonight will be no different. I think there's always an anticipation for the game, but this one … you have a special feeling about opening night and the start of the season."
The good news is that Ryan O'Reilly (muscles spasms) will be in the lineup when the Sabres open their season against the Montreal Canadiens at KeyBank Center on Thursday night. He'll be full-go in every way other than being limited in certain faceoff situations. Wingers Sam Reinhart and Evander Kane will serve as capable substitutes in those spots.
Watch: Dan Bylsma | Watch: Ryan O'Reilly
New additions Kyle Okposo (bruised knee) and Dmitry Kulikov (lower-body bruise), however, will have their Sabres debuts put on hold. Both skated with the team on Thursday morning, but neither will play against the Canadiens.
Video: Preview: MTL at BUF (10/13/16)
Bylsma said that he expects Okposo to join the team on their three-game road trip through Western Canada, which begins on Sunday in Edmonton, and hopes the same for Kulikov.
Hudson Fasching and Casey Nelson, the two players who joined the Sabres after the NCAA season ended last March, will enter the lineup as replacements for Okposo and Kulikov, respectively. Both played well in the preseason: Bylsma lauded Fasching for his attention to detail and strong play below the hash marks and Nelson for his calm, commanding presence on defense.
In fact, even Eichel's injury wasn't enough to put a damper on the expectations the Sabres have for themselves heading into the season.
"That's a tough break for us, he's a big piece to our puzzle," defenseman Cody Franson said. "But we have to prepare and be ready to play games. Good teams find ways to win games when players go down … We're not going to use as an excuse, we have to prepare and be ready to go and come out with a strong effort."
"We feel comfortable and confident in ourselves and the personnel we have here to make up for him," forward Sam Reinhart said. "You can all play a role, do your part, and make his [absence] less felt."
Robin Lehner will start in net for the Sabres. He's coming off a strong preseason in which he allowed four goals in three games - all wins - including a 28-save shutout of the Carolina Hurricanes.
The game begins at 7 p.m. and can be seen live on MSG or heard on WGR 550. If you're coming down for the game, make sure to get here early. A 'Party in the Plaza' will be held beginning at 5 p.m., and DJ Kool will be on hand to make some noise in the joint.
Montreal will be without star goaltender Carey Price, who's battling the flu. Al Montoya will instead make his Canadiens debut in net. In front of Montoya, the Canadiens' defense is a tale of two defensemen making debuts on opposite ends of the experience spectrum.
At the top of the defense, Shea Weber will play his first game as a Canadien after being acquired in the blockbuster trade that sent P.K. Subban to Nashville. In 11 seasons with Nashville, Weber was a four-time All-Star and is known for his leadership as much as his blistering slap shot.
"There really isn't much that he doesn't bring to a team," said Franson, who spent 23 games as Weber's teammate in Nashville. "From a leadership standpoint, he's arguably the best you'll find. He'll be a big part of that room. And his skill set, he's got a hard shot, he moves really well for a big man, he plays a physical game, he makes it tough on their teams' skill players to create much.
"When you have a player of that caliber, it's something you have to be aware of."
On the other end of the spectrum, Mikhail Sergachev will become the fourth youngest Canadien in franchise history when he makes his NHL debut at 18 years and 110 days old. Sergachev was selected with the No. 9 pick in this summer's draft and played his way onto the roster in camp.
9 Evander Kane - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 23 Sam Reinhart
63 Tyler Ennis - 22 Johan Larsson - 82 Marcus Foligno
26 Matt Moulson - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - Hudson Fasching
44 Nicolas Deslauriers - 27 Derek Grant - 12 Brian Gionta
Defensemen: 55 Rasmus Ristolainen, 29 Jake McCabe, 47 Zach Bogosian, 4 Josh Gorges, 6 Cody Franson, 34 Casey Nelson
40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson