Chris Taylor issued a challenge for the veterans on Buffalo's Prospect Challenge roster to stand out during the three-game series, particularly those who had a season of experience with him in Rochester already on their resumes.
To a man, that challenge was met head-on throughout the Sabres' 6-4 win over the New Jersey Devils on Friday. Victor Olofsson led the way with three points (1+2), Andrew Oglevie tallied a goal an assist, and Rasmus Asplund contributed a pair of helpers, one of which set up a goal from William Borgen.
"I think we kind of put that expectation on ourselves," Olofsson said. "We want to be leaders in this group. There's a lot of young guys, new guys ... We're trying to lead the way."
Kyle Olson, Dylan Cozens, and Arttu Ruotsalainen also scored goals for the Sabres, who took a 6-1 lead before penalty trouble allowed the Devils to tighten the score in the third period. Jonas Johansson, another player with pro experience under his belt, was steady throughout a 29-save outing.
Olofsson skated alongside Asplund - his centerman during a 30-goal campaign in Rochester last season - with Oglevie on the right side. The trio pushed the tempo and controlled play in the offensive zone, quickly finding the net when Olofsson buried a laser on a 2-on-1 rush at 5:12 of the first.
Oglevie went top shelf for a goal later in the period with assists from Olofsson and Asplund, which was preceded by a loud hit from Borgen in the neutral zone. Asplund set Borgen up for a one-time goal from the right circle in the second.
"I thought Borgen, right off the bat, led the way with the big hit, playing physical," Taylor said. "I thought Asplund, Olofsson did a great job. I thought [defenseman Brandon] Hickey did a great job too. But you know what? Our whole team … I thought we were just very physical against that team."
The Prospects Challenge serves as a chance for veteran prospects to make early impressions on Sabres brass as they seek to take the next steps in their careers. Olofsson and Borgen are trying to return to the NHL after impressing in short stints last season. Asplund, Hickey, and Oglevie are trying to work their way there for the first time.
That means making sure they stand out in opportunities to play against peers in their age bracket, as this weekend presents.
"Definitely," Oglevie said. "I think Tayls did the same thing. He expected us to go out there and make plays and lead by example. I thought we did a really good job of that."
While their contributions were evident on the scoresheet, Taylor credited their behind-the-scenes leadership with helping to set the tone in the win as well.
"You want them to stand out, but you also want them to be good leaders for our team and for the organization because that's the culture that they've got brought into the last couple of years," Taylor said. "You want them to create that culture for these guys coming in here.
"I thought they did a great job. In between periods, talking to the young guys on the bench, I thought they all did a good job. But obviously, how they played and what they did, I thought they did a really good job for us."
Cozens said he quickly forgot about the thumb injury that sidelined him for part of the summer once he took the ice for his first exhibition game in a Sabres uniform. The first-round pick buried his first goal on a power play in the second period, utilizing a net-front screen from Brett Murray.
"I felt good," Cozens said. "It was a fast game, lots of good players, everyone's competing hard. It was good to just get my legs under me again and go out and play hockey."
Taylor said he liked what he saw from the center, whom he used in all situations.
"I thought Dylan played very well, especially with his injury and coming into his first game," Taylor said. "… I thought he played a really good game. I thought he was smart. I thought he did a really good job on faceoffs. I used him on penalty kill as well and I thought he did a really good job with that."
Pekar steals the show
Matej Pekar admitted last summer that he enjoys being somewhat of a "rat" on the ice, antagonizing the opposition with his physicality and using it to draw penalties and create offense. Olofsson smirked as he offered another label to describe his younger teammate.
"He's a pain in the ass for the other team," Olofsson said.
Pekar didn't let a seven-month layoff dissuade him from embracing his irritating style, drawing the ire of Devils players until he finally dropped the gloves with 6-foot-3 defenseman Michael Vukojevic in the third period. It was the smaller Pekar who came out on top, earning what was arguably the loudest ovation of the night from a packed Harborcenter crowd.
Cozens, who has been rooming with Pekar during the summer, said the winger had asked another player to fight earlier in the game and was turned down. When the gloves finally came off, it came as no surprise.
"He's a great energy guy, he gets the boys fired up," Cozens said. "He's a great team guy. He does what needs to be done to win. That fight was pretty cool to see."
The Sabres continue the Prospects Challenge against the Boston Bruins at 7 p.m. on Saturday. The Bruins are coming off a 4-3 win in their first game against Pittsburgh.
The game will be streamed locally on Sabres.com and Facebook Live.