It’ll be No. 1 versus No. 2 at First Niagara Center on Friday.
The top two picks of the 2014 NHL Draft will go head-to-head when Aaron Ekblad, the draft’s top pick, and the Florida Panthers take on Sam Reinhart and the Buffalo Sabres. Faceoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. (MSG, Bell TV with the Tops Gamenight pregame show beginning at 6:30 p.m.).
The game marks the earlier date in the season for the first game featuring the top two picks in the most recent draft since Oct. 11, 1997. Back then, Joe Thornton (first overall) of the Boston Bruins squared off against Patrick Marleau (second overall) and the Sharks in San Jose.
However, as interesting as the matchup may be, it’s not really on the minds of the two rookies who will play Friday night.
“Not the fact that it’s 1 and 2, it’s the fact I know him very well. We’re pretty good friends so I think that says more than 1 and 2,” Reinhart said.
Reinhart and Ekblad roomed together during a U-18 camp last year and have played together on several teams, including Team Canada for the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship. They grew closer as they were often together for pre-draft commitments.
Reinhart is the seventh 18-year-old to ever dress for the Sabres and became the fourth to do so on opening night.
He has been up and down the lineup through four games. He started on a scoring line, but the coaching staff has decided to dial is minutes back in order for him to get a better feel for the speed and intensity of the game. He played 6:39 on Tuesday while on a line with Nicolas Deslauriers and is expected to play with them again on Friday.
“There’s no question I’m used to playing a lot more and getting a lot more opportunities. I was aware that if I were to still be here at this point that it would have to be an adjustment. I’m trying to go through that now,” Reinhart said. “I think last game, obviously it was important to get the win, but I think I handled it well and was able to observe a little bit more.
“When it was my time to get out there, I was ready to battle and compete. I think that was the biggest thing for me to watch and learn. If I get out anymore tonight, I’ll be ready for that.”
Sabres coach Ted Nolan thinks that Reinhart has handled the adjustment well. Reinhart is itching for more ice time and Nolan hopes that that desire to play spreads throughout the lineup.
“If you’re going to try to change things, you’ve got to hate losing more than you like winning sometimes,” Nolan said. “As players go, you want them to have that hunger and desire to get out there. Certainly we want to see that from Sam but we want to see it from everyone.”
On the other side of the ice, Ekblad has averaged 21:49 of ice time a night through three games for Florida.
“It means a lot. It’s obviously the confidence the coaches have in me to put me out there that much throughout a game. I’m really happy to have those kinds of opportunities,” he said. “I’m trying to take advantage of it and use those opportunities to my favor and hopefully contribute to a team win.”
FRIDAY’S PROJECTED LINEUP
26 Matt Moulson – 63 Tyler Ennis – 21 Drew Stafford
82 Marcus Foligno – 19 Cody Hodgson – 80 Chris Stewart
17 Torrey Mitchell – 28 Zemgus Girgensons – 12 Brian Gionta
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 23 Sam Reinhart – 8 Cody McCormick
4 Josh Gorges – 57 Tyler Myers
6 Mike Weber – 41 Andrej Meszaros
61 Andre Benoit – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
1 Jhonas Enroth
34 Michal Neuvirth
Scratched: 24 Tyson Strachan, 51 Nikita Zadorov, 65 Brian Flynn
Injured Reserve: 31 Matt Hackett, 36 Patrick Kaleta
The Sabres first power-play unit will feature a slightly new wrinkle Friday night. Cody Hodgson will move from forward on the second unit to the left point on the first. Hodgson said the biggest difference for him will be changing his mindset from “pass first” to “shoot often.”
“Most of the power play will be set up on the other side so when it comes to me, I’m mostly shooting as opposed to before being a down-low guy or a halfwall guy setting things up,” he said. “This time, it’s more just shooting.”
He said when it comes to switching positions both on the power play and 5-on-5, maintaining constant communication with his teammates is of the utmost importance. Nolan hopes putting Hodgson on the point will give the power play will provide some stability and develop into a consistent scoring threat.
Buffalo’s power play is currently 0-for-10 on the season.
“We haven’t got the team where we’re able to ad lib as we go. We’ve got to have a structure to it and make sure we put our people in a good position where they can do their thing,” Nolan said.
“Cody’s one of those guys that has a tremendous shot and if we spring him and he’s able to do that, similar to all the top shooters in this League, they’ve got to get that ice and they’ve got to get the puck and shoot.”
Projected Power Play Units
Marcus Foligno recorded a pair of goals on Tuesday in Carolina. Nolan hopes the team’s other scoring threats will be able to get at least one in the goal column soon.
“Those goal scorers, when they don’t score for awhile, they get hungry and they want to score,” he said. “As we get going here, Cody Hodgson’s going to get much better; Matty Moulson’s going to get much better; Drew Stafford’s going to get much better because the longer it goes, the hungrier they get.”
Friday’s game is the first of a back-to-back set at home. The Sabres will host the Boston Bruins on Saturday at 7 p.m. It marks the second of 18 sets of back-to-back games this season. Buffalo then won’t be home again until Boston returns to town on Oct. 30.