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When it comes to faceoffs, O'Reilly's season has been one for the books

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

Kyle Okposo still remembers the moment he learned of Ryan O'Reilly's prowess in the faceoff circle, a lesson he had to learn the hard way. Okposo was still with the New York Islanders, who found themselves trailing but pushing to come back with a 6-on-5 advantage.

Okposo was called upon three times to take draws in that situation, and all three times he found himself matched up with O'Reilly. 

"He won three dead clean," Okposo recalled Wednesday morning. 

O'Reilly finished among the league's top three in faceoffs won in his each of his first two seasons in Buffalo, but this season his responsibilities have reached new heights. He's won 54 draws in two games since Jack Eichel went down with a high-ankle sprain, giving him a league-high 856 wins this season.

At his current pace - and recent numbers without Eichel suggest that pace will only increase - he would finish the season with 1,238 faceoff wins. That would be the second-highest total in a single season since the NHL began tracking faceoff stats in 1997-98. Rod Brind'Amour holds the record with 1,268 (via @Sabres PR). 

Not only is O'Reilly winning draws in mass quantities, he's been doing it with elite efficiency. O'Reilly leads the NHL (minimum 100 attempts) with a 61.3-percent success rate in the faceoff circle. Only two players have won 1,000 or more draws in a season while maintaining at least a 59-percent clip: Brind'Amour (five times) and Boston's Patrice Bergeron (two times).

Video: After Practice: HOUSLEY

O'Reilly's done all this while consistently being asked to perform in high-leverage situations. Not only is he a regular both on the power play and on the penalty kill, his 531 defensive-zone starts rank second league forwards according to Corsica.

Asked if he's ever seen anything like it, Okposo answered immediately: "Nope." 

"You can see it in opposing centers when they're going to line up against him," he said. "They're trying to think of different ways to beat him. The fascinating part is he pretty much takes draws the exact same way all the time. And nobody seems to be able to figure it out."

Added Zemgus Girgensons, a fellow centerman by trade: "He's definitely the best faceoff guy I know or I've ever played with. … He's just strong on his stick. He's smart. If you switch it up, he'll adjust to you."

With nearly two full seasons as O'Reilly's teammate now under his belt, Okposo was asked if he learned any behind-the-scenes secrets to O'Reilly's success. He smiled.

"You have to ask him about practice yesterday morning," he said. "I got him pretty good."


Baptiste keeps it simple

Video: Sabres Now (2/14/18)

It's been an up-and-down season for Nicholas Baptiste, in the literal sense. He's carved out a consistent role in Rochester with a focus on the small details, which has allowed him to earn multiple recalls to Buffalo. 

His most recent recall came Sunday, in the wake of Eichel's injury. He joined the lineup against Tampa Bay on Tuesday and provided instant offense. Collecting the puck off a turnover in the first period, he blazed through the neutral zone, tossed the puck behind his defender along the boards and cut to the net, where he received a return pass from Girgensons to score the game's first goal. 

Video: TBL@BUF: Baptiste goes five-hole to open the scoring

While it's always gratifying to score, Baptiste explained that it's not necessarily what he's looking for at this point of his career. In most cases when he dumps the puck behind defenders, it will be in an effort to wear down opposing players so that the top lines can do their damage.

"I think I've been doing real well in the role I'm in right now," he said. "I think obviously with increased minutes I'll be able to contribute offensively a little more, but I think right now I'm doing the little things right and I'm helping the team get pucks deep and get below the goal line, making it tough on their defense.

"We have tons of skill on this team up top. If I can make it hard on their D, going back for pucks, it's going to opens up tons of ice for those guys."


Nelson stays hot

Casey Nelson is another young player who earned an opportunity due to injuries, and he's run with it so far. Nelson earned his fourth point (1+3) in five games with an assist on Scott Wilson's goal on Tuesday, which further displayed what Phil Housley has described as an "uncanny" ability to get shots to the net.

In fact, the first thing Wilson said to Nelson upon scoring the goal was a compliment of his patience. Wilson was late getting to the lane where he could redirect Nelson's shot from the point. Nelson recognized it and made a move before taking his shot. 

Video: TBL@BUF: Wilson tips in Nelson's shot while airborne

"I think he's been really solid," Housley said. "There's a lot of areas he can still improve on, but I really like the way he jumps in the play. He tries to be part of the rush. I like in the offensive zone he finds ways, you saw it last night."


Onto Ottawa

The Sabres left for Ottawa following an optional practice on Wednesday, where they'll meet the Senators on Thursday night. The Senators were part of the first major deal of deadline season on Tuesday night, sending defenseman Dion Phaneuf and forward Nate Thompson to Los Angeles in exchange for forwards Marian Gaborik and Nick Shore

Coverage on MSG-B begins at 7 p.m. with the GMC Game Night Pregame Show, or you can listen to the game live on WGR 550. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:30.

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