TRAVERSE CITY, MICH. – The future stars of the Buffalo Sabres took a great first step toward defending their title at the NHL Prospects Tournament.
Sabres prospects are competing in the eight-team tournament held in Traverse City, Mich., which they won when it was last held in 2011. Thursday afternoon, Buffalo defeated prospects from the Columbus Blue Jackets organization 3-2 thanks to scoring from a trio of picks from the 2013 NHL Draft.
Nicholas Baptiste and Justin Bailey scored early and the eventual game-winning goal came in the opening minutes of the second period off the stick of 2013 top pick Rasmus Ristolainen during a 5-on-3 power play.
Chadd Cassidy, coach of the Rochester Americans, Buffalo’s affiliate in the American Hockey Leauge, is leading the tournament squad from behind the bench. Cassidy was happy with his team’s effort early on, but felt his team was outplayed for much of the rest of the first period.
“It was a really good start for us. We came out of the gates really hard and I liked our energy coming out. I think the trap that you fall into is you start feeling probably a little too good about yourselves. They showed some push back and really took control after we went up 2-0,” Cassidy said. “They dominated the rest of the period.”
Buffalo was outshot 14-9 after one and trailed in that department for the rest of the game. Columbus ended up with 28 shots to Buffalo’s 22 by the end of the game. The Sabres had registered just two shots on net in the final period.
The Sabres would find a way to hold on. Holding a one-goal lead with 16.9 seconds to play in the third period and the faceoff to the right of Sabres goaltender Nathan Lieuwen, Cassidy called a time out to change personnel.
Onto the ice came the team’s top line of center Johan Larsson, left wing Daniel Catenacci and right wing Joel Armia with 2013 first-round picks Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov on the back end. Larsson lost the draw, but Buffalo eliminated any real scoring threat and ended the game with the puck pinned up against the boards.
Cassidy said that it was easy to pick which players to put out there in that crucial moment.
“Those are guys that you’re going to depend on and they’ve got to learn to play in those situations,” he said. “As early as it is tonight, we need those guys to be good in those situations and they were.”
He cited center Zemgus Girgensons and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel as other players he could depend on in close games.
In a short tournament like this, you’ve just got to focus on getting better every hockey game. [Friday], we’ve got to be just a little bit better structurally and if we’re committed to that, we’re going to have success. - Chadd Cassidy
In many ways, it was the first time many of these prospects had played together in a game situation. Some have been a part of rookie development camps, but for some players, they’d never played for Buffalo against another team.
Ruhwedel, named captain of the team during the tournament, said that the team is coming together and played better as the game wore on.
“It’s great to come back to the bench and have your teammates say, ‘Great play. Great shift. Way to block that shot.’ The coaching staff, they all know we’re out here kind of going blind off the first game, so having your teammates encourage you is really a bonus,” he said.
Lieuwen, who backstopped Buffalo to the championship in Traverse City two years ago, made 26 saves in the win. He knocked a few shots away with his blocker during two stretches mid-way through the third to keep the Sabres ahead. He found out he would be starting the game while on the plane to Traverse City on Wednesday.
“It’s just a lot of confidence, especially as a goalie,” Lieuwen said. “You need to take confidence from your accomplishments. Coming here two years ago and we did well, it was a big help and I knew that coming into this tournament, I could be a factor. ”
The Sabres take on prospects from the New York Rangers organization Friday at 4 p.m. The game can be heard live on 1520 AM and at Sabres.com featuring play-by-play from WGR 550’s Paul Hamilton and analysis from Sabres studio host Brian Duff.
Cassidy is already looking forward to that next game.
“In a short tournament like this, you’ve just got to focus on getting better every hockey game,” he said. “[Friday], we’ve got to be just a little bit better structurally and if we’re committed to that, we’re going to have success.”
BUF 1-0 Nicholas Baptiste (Nikita Zadorov) 0:58
BUF 2-0 Justin Bailey (Peter Trainor, Colin Jacobs) 3:10
CBJ 2-1 Dillon Heatherington (Boone Jenner, Dalton Smith)
BUF 3-1 PPG Rasmus Ristolainen (Johan Larsson) 3:17
CBJ 3-2 SHG Alex Aleardi (Unassisted) 12:23
Daniel Catenacci – Johan Larsson – Joel Armia
Kevin Sundher – Zemgus Girgensons – Nicholas Baptiste
Eric Locke – Colin Jacobs – Logan Nelson
Peter Trainor – Justin Kea – Justin Bailey
Brady Austin – Chad Ruhwedel
Nikita Zadorov – Rasmus Ristolainen
Alex Lepkowski – Connor Boland
Dalton Smith – Boone Jenner – Josh Anderson
Kerby Rychel – Michael Chaput – Jake Hansen
Nick Moutrey – Lukas Sedlak – Alex Aleardi
Matej Beran – Jeremy Langolis – Oliver Bjorkstrand
Ryan Murray – Austin Madaisky
Dillon Heartherington – Thomas Larkin
Dakota Mermis – Alexandre Gosselin