TORONTO - Ralph Krueger could see the signs in practice. In recent days, Dylan Cozens has begun to look less like an 18-year-old adjusting to his first NHL camp and more like a player who feels he belongs.
"It's interesting how somebody with that much skill and personality is able to adjust in such a short period of time," Krueger said. "He started camp a little tentative and hesitant. The last few days, we noticed it already in practice, he was opening up a little bit and just playing his game.
"Tonight, we saw the confirmation of that."
Cozens turned in a highlight performance for the Sabres during a 3-0 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena on Friday, a game in which he was the youngest in a lineup that featured seven players under the age of 22.
Video: Condensed Game: Sabres @ Maple Leafs
It was a heightened environment in comparison to Cozens' preseason debut on Monday, which came in the collegiate confines of Pegula Ice Arena at Penn State against a prospect-heavy Pittsburgh Penguins lineup. This was a real NHL rink in one of hockey's storied cities, with All-Stars lining up across from him.
Cozens began his night by stripping the puck from one of those All-Stars, defenseman Morgan Rielly, and turning it into a scoring chance in the first period.
"From first game to second, I thought he took a big step," his linemate, Conor Sheary, said. "I thought tonight he seemed a lot more confident with the puck. I think him and I had a little bit of chemistry and were able to find each other a couple times. I mean, you expect that from a young guy. He might be a little nervous for his first game, so I think tonight he really settled down and played like himself."
The moments kept coming. There was one play in the first period that saw Cozens spin from one defender as he crossed his own blue line, then evade a double-team along the boards before passing back to his defenseman. That's poise.
"Every day I'm getting more comfortable with the puck and more comfortable making plays," Cozens said. "I didn't want to turn the puck over. I wasn't seeing much, so I just held onto it and turned back and gave it to the D."
In the second period, Cozens skated hard through the neutral zone and made a perfect pass to Sheary off the boards, setting the winger free for a scoring attempt. That's skill.
Later, he gained momentum as he rushed from one end of the ice to the other, weaving through traffic along the way. There's the skating.
"That's exactly the maturity we were seeing, the comfort of being in this group, in the National Hockey League, at this level," Krueger said. "We saw not only the puck skills, but the foot speed that he brings to a game."
It remains an uphill climb for Cozens, the seventh overall pick in this year's draft, to make the NHL roster out of training camp. It is for any 18-year-old. If the best course for his development is to lead his junior team in Lethbridge for one more season, he's said he'll embrace that challenge openly.
Yet he's also maintained since the draft that it's his goal to stick around in Buffalo as long as possible. The Sabres have three preseason games remaining, two of which will be played at home.
"Obviously I'd be happy to play," Cozens said. "I love playing the game of hockey and I love playing at this level. I want to go out and prove myself, so I want to stick around for as long as I can."
Ullmark, Andersen duel
The Sabres were stifled by Frederik Andersen from the first shift of the night, when Tage Thompson drove in alone and had his backhand attempt stuffed by the Maple Leafs goalie. Andersen combined with backup Michael Hutchinson to stop 31 shots in the shutout effort.
Linus Ullmark kept Buffalo in the game during his 40 minutes of work, stopping 21 of 23 shots before giving way to Andrew Hammond. Ullmark's night included a sprawling pad save to rob William Nylander of a goal in the second period.
Video: BUF@TOR: Ullmark stretches out pad to deny Nylander
"When you speak about Linus, you have to feel good about where he was at," Krueger said. "He made some great saves, there was some excellent goaltending at both ends of the rink and I thought Linus really matched Andersen step for step."
Andreas Johnsson opened the scoring with a power-play goal at 10:12 of the first period. Ullmark stopped an initial shot by Auston Matthews from the right circle, but Kenny Agostino corralled the rebound and passed through the crease to find Johnsson staring down a wide-open cage.
Matthews extended Toronto's lead to 2-0 at 12:15 of the second period, slipping behind the defense to bury a one-time feed from Nylander. Matt Read beat Hammond to cap the scoring in the third.
Aside from the score, Krueger was pleased with how his young lineup embraced the game plan against a veteran Toronto roster.
"I've told you all along, the scores are really secondary," Krueger said. "I'm very, very pleased with the willingness to conform to what we're doing. We've got a whole new coaching staff. We've got all kinds of new principles and concepts going in. We're playing up against teams that are very comfortable in their skin and have had successful seasons in the past, so we're playing catchup against them.
"When I look, again, at the first two periods and take the score out of the equation, we saw an effort in the direction that we want to see it and we want to see Sabres hockey in the third game of our preseason. We're pleased with that and we're going to build on it tomorrow."
The Sabres return to KeyBank Center for the home portion of their two-game set with the Maple Leafs. Tickets are available here.
The Sportsnet feed of the game will be carried on MSG, or you can listen to Dan Dunleavy and Rob Ray call the game on WGR 550. The puck drops at 7 p.m.