The Buffalo Sabres opened the 2013 NHL Prospect Tournament on Thursday with a 3-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets. Amidst the team victory were many individual performances that won’t show up in the box score.
Among the notables:
Armia was engaged from the very first shift and he had to be, as the talented Finn was targeted with a big hit in the game’s opening minute. Fortunately for Armia, his strength and balance resulted in a battle won and a Blue Jacket defender being sent to the ice. Offensively, Armia’s showed his hands in tight and his one-on-one skills when given space. He used his frame to set a screen on the game-winning goal and even saw time on the penalty kill as the game wore on. In all, it was an encouraging performance in his much-anticipated Sabres debut.
Centering the Sabres top offensive unit between Armia and Daniel Catenacci, Larsson showed his puck-control skills while faring well on key defensive zone draws. His low center of gravity allowed him to control the play along the walls, and his quick offensive sense was evident around the net. As a whole, Larsson mixed skill and grunt work to make a sound impression in the tourney opener.
Speed kills and Catenacci has plenty to burn. The Owen Sound Attack product didn’t produce on the score sheet, but his quick acceleration had him in position to pounce on his share of rebound opportunities. A diligent worker in all three zones, Catenacci rounded off his value with solid energy on the penalty kill.
Girgensons played a strong 200-foot game, using his underrated vision to distribute to his wingers while regularly coming back deep on the backcheck. His ability to take away time and space forced the Blue Jackets into a few turnovers, but it was his strong two-way play that sent a message to the Sabres coaching staff in the first of the week’s four games. He and Columbus winger Kerby Rychel seemed to butt heads through the entire 60-minute affair and there was no way the Latvian was going to back down.
Continuing the chemistry with Girgensons that began at Development Camp in July, Baptiste put forth a solid effort due in large part to his insatiable forecheck. The Sudbury Wolves wing consistently played the body, and hit the seams at the right time in the offensive zone. His first-period goal displayed a quick release that could see him be an impact player as the tournament progresses.
Paired with fellow 2013 draft mate Nikita Zadorov, Ristolainen was smooth in his execution while playing at a very high pace. His decision-making out of the zone was superb, and he proved stout against the rush. The polished defender showed his offensive value as well, slinging an accurate wrist shot through a screen to score the game winning goal. “Mistake free” is the best way to describe the opening act of Ristolainen’s North American transition.
Zadorov has stated that he “likes to hit.” He proved it Thursday, crashing his body into every Blue Jackets forward that came near the Sabres crease. The towering Russian kept things simple when the puck was on his stick, whether it was making a quick exit pass or a simple dump into the Columbus zone. With the Blue Jackets net empty in the game’s final minute, Zadorov used his size to smartly pin the puck against the boards while holding off two Columbus forwards.
Calm and steady with the “C” on his jersey, Ruhwedel showed veteran poise as a right-side defender opposite Brady Austin. While not the biggest player on the ice, Ruhwedel was very calculated when entering the corners and showed good use of his stick to take away passing lanes. His ability to lead by example should go a long way as the tournament plays out.
Returning for his second NHL Prospect Tournament, Lieuwen was dialed in from start to finish. The second-year pro used his size to fight through screens and was aggressive in challenging into the white ice. Lieuwen appeared confident, more agile, and generally crisper in his side-to-side movement en route to finishing to stopping 26 of 28 shots to earn the victory.
For more on all the youngsters in the Sabres pipeline, check out Kris Baker’s web site - sabresprospects.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @sabresprospects for in-game updates throughout the week on any Buffalo prospects that are in action.