With Zach Bogosian expected to miss "weeks" with a an MCL sprain that he sustained in the first period of the Sabres' win over Minnesota on Tuesday, rookie defenseman Casey Nelson is set to join the lineup for the first time since the team's season-opener on Oct. 13.
His immediate task is to be part of a defensive effort to slow down a Toronto Maple Leafs offense that generates more shots than any other in the League. Toronto leads the NHL 34.3 shots per game and is +40 in shot attempts through 10 games.
"I think they're pretty quick, like to move the puck up and down the ice," Nelson said after Buffalo's morning skate on Thursday. "Long plays, anything like that, keeping their feet moving. I think we've just to stay in their way, be physical and we'll be fine."
Nelson played two games in Rochester on Oct. 21 and 22 to stay sharp, but has otherwise watched from the press box as the Sabres navigated through the first month of their schedule. It's a position he was well prepared to make the most of thanks to his experience as a freshman at Minnesota State University, when an injury forced him to miss a chunk of the season after playing in a handful of games.
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During the first few weeks of that injury, Nelson said, he was shutdown mentally. But he eventually learned how to make the most of watching and learning, and went on to make himself a sought-after NHL prospect over his next two collegiate seasons.
"I think I learned mentally how to stay in it from college, form not playing in my freshman year," Nelson said. "Mentally I have been in it and been positive, really positive, just been taking everything in so I think I'm ready."
Nelson will play on the right side, his strong side, on Thursday after playing on the left in his season debut. He played on both sides during a seven-game stint with the Sabres to end last season.
Watch: Dan Bylsma | Ryan O'Reilly | Matt Moulson
"I think his best games were last year playing for us," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "We see a good skating, smooth guy, a head-up, good first-pass guy who has a real good offensive hockey instinct and that's what you saw from him in training camp as well."
The task for Nelson and the rest of the Sabres is to slow the young, talented Maple Leafs offense. Toronto is led by William Nylander, 20, who has already scored 11 points (4+7) and Auston Matthews, 18, who is tied with the rookie lead with six goals. Nazem Kadri, a veteran among the group at age 26, ranks third on the team with eight points (5+3).
"You see a lot of skill," Sabres alternate captain Ryan O'Reilly said. "You give them an inch, they're gonna make little plays, they're gonna expose you. The big thing for us tonight is not any casual moments. We've got to play hard against these guys and make sure we don't give their skilled guys time with the puck."
This game won't mark the first meeting between Matthew and Jack Eichel, teammates with Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey, nor will we see Nylander face his younger brother Alex, who is currently playing in Rochester. Yet it still might mark a new chapter in the rivalry between Buffalo and Toronto. The Maple Leafs have already seen promise in their young players, and their record will improve to .500 with a win. The Sabres are already above .500 and are looking for their first four-game win streak since December of 2014.
"I like winning hockey games," Bylsma said. "I think if the rivalry is going to get bigger and better it's not going to be because of Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel. It's going to be because we're both competitive, winning hockey teams. I think that's where it's going."
Robin Lehner will start in net for the Sabres, seeking his third win in a row. He'll be opposed by Frederik Andersen for the Leafs.
Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 550. Rick Jeanneret, Rob Ray and Martin Biron will have the call. The puck drops at 7 p.m.
Hudson Fasching, who did not play in Minnesota due to a groin injury, will once again be absent from the lineup on Thursday. Fasching skated alone on Thursday morning and is day-to-day.
26 Matt Moulson - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
82 Marcus Foligno - 22 Johan Larsson - 12 Brian Gionta
63 Tyler Ennis - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 23 Sam Reinhart
56 Justin Bailey - 27 Derek Grant - 73 Nicholas Baptiste
Defensemen: 4 Josh Gorges, 55 Rasmus Ristolainen, 29 Jake McCabe, 77 Dmitry Kulikov, 6 Cody Franson, 34 Casey Nelson
40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson