It’s no secret that excitement surrounds the future of the Sabres organization and the depth of its prospects. It didn’t take long for the prospects to validate that excitement Saturday night against the Devils – in fact, it only took 25 seconds.
Shortly after the opening faceoff, Evan Rodrigues fed Jack Eichel with a slick backhand pass in the defensive zone to create a 2-on-1 rush for Buffalo. Eichel, he No. 2 overall pick in 2015, capitalized on the opportunity, racing to the net and feeding Nicholas Baptiste for the first goal of the game.
The score set the tone for a three-goal first period and the Sabres would never look back, winning 6-2 over the New Jersey Devils in the inaugural game of the Prospect Challenge, presented by Tops, Post Foods and Honey Bunches of Oats at First Niagara Center.
“A great play by E-Rod,” Eichel said. “Their D stepped up and he made a great chip, and obviously a great finish by Baps to go over the goalie’s pad. It was good for us to get a goal early, get our confidence, get momentum going; it was the right way to start the game.”
Buffalo’s top line of Eichel, Rodrigues and Baptiste turned in a dominant performance, scoring twice more following their goal in the opening minute. Three minutes after their first goal, Rodrigues forced a turnover in the offensive zone and immediately fed Baptiste, who fired in his second goal of the game.
Then, in the second period, Rodrigues found the back of the net himself with a glove side goal from in-between the circles. It capped a three-point performance for the undrafted product of Boston University who signed with the Sabres this spring.
“He’s a pretty good player, huh? I think he kind of flew under the radar a little bit last year in college and I think he’s definitely making a name for himself,” Eichel said of his former college teammate. “You see his skill and he’s a good player for sure, I think he’s gonna show a lot of people that.”
“He was one of the best tonight of the group,” Amerks coach Randy Cunneyworth said of Rodrigues.” I thought he’s shown that niftiness –puck skills, stick skills – that he can get away from guys, have that little juke and find the pass or take the shot if he needs.”
It was a good night all around for former BU Terriers – in addition to Eichel and Rodrigues’ combined four points, Cason Hohmann also added a goal late in the second period. Hohmann, who was signed to an AHL contract in July, connected on a hard shot from Brycen Martin for an excellent tip over the left shoulder of Devils goalie Mackenzie Blackwood.
New Jersey’s first score of the game came early in the third period off the stick of Alexandre Goulet against former Canisius College goaltender Keegan Asmundson. John Quenneville added another with 5:22 left in the third period to make it 6-2. Asmundson entered the game in relief of starter Andrey Makarov, who stopped all of the 14 shots he faced in nearly 31 minutes of action.
“That’s his game. He’s very athletic in the net, he’s a smaller body so he has to move quick a little bit more than a bigger goalie would but he has the athletic ability to do those things,” Cunneyworth said of Makarov. “I think he’s off to a good start as well.”
A FRESH START FOR EICHEL
It was visible during the latter part of Development Camp that Eichel may not have been playing at 100 percent. At that time, he was coming off of a stretch that saw him go from playing in the Frozen Four, to playing overseas in the World Championships, to coming to Buffalo for the scouting combine and then finally to the draft.
On Saturday night, Buffalo may have finally gotten its first live look at a fresh Eichel.
“Yeah, I felt a lot better,” Eichel said. “Development Camp, it was long and it seemed like before that I had been running around for a while so it was nice to settle in and kind of prepare for this one a little bit better and it ended up being good.”
Fresh legs allowed Eichel to capitalize early on one of the biggest strengths of his game: his speed. On the Sabres’ first goal, he was able to beat the Devils defenders down the ice to maintain a 2-on-1 advantage.
“I think his game, obviously he’s able to set guys up and get that breakaway speed or pull away from people and make things happen,” Cunneyworth said. “And if he’s not able to do it himself, he’s able to make a space for somebody else.”
REINHART, BAILEY CONTINUE TO IMPRESS
Two of the players who were the most impressive at Development Camp were Justin Bailey and Sam Reinhart, and on Saturday the two linemates continued to impress by contributing a goal apiece.
Bailey struck first with a goal in the second period. After intercepting a pass in the offensive zone, he immediately fired a scorching slap shot past Blackwood, yet another big moment for the first-season pro.
“I was lucky I got a bit of a generous pass from their D-man. I really stepped into that one,” Bailey said.
Reinhart, meanwhile, impressed Cunneyworth with his smarty play even before scoring in the third period.
“I don’t think you overlook it at all, I think it’s there,” Cunneyworth said. “You see that poise and smart play; I think he’s a guy that really thinks the game ahead, a couple of seconds ahead. I think he sees things that others aren’t able to.”
The Sabres will next play prospects from the Boston Bruins organization on Monday at First Niagara Center. The Devils will face the Bruins on Sunday at HARBORCENTER at 7 p.m.