The Buffalo Sabres opened their 2021-22 preseason schedule on the road against the Columbus Blue Jackets, icing a team of mostly young prospects with little to no experience at the NHL level, giving them their first tastes of NHL action. After going down early and playing from behind for most of the game, the Sabres were able to put together an impressive comeback effort and skate away with a win after sealing the victory in the shootout.
Sabres Rally Back For Shootout Win
The Sabres ended the first period down 2-1 to the Blue Jackets, thanks to a pair of goals from the Jackets’ Oliver Bjorkstrand. Arttu Ruotsaleinen, who played 17 games with the Sabres last season scoring five goals, one assist, and six points, scored the lone goal in the opening frame thanks to assists from John Hayden and Casey Fitzgerald. The Blue Jackets added two goals to their lead in the second period, putting the Sabres down 4-1 heading into the third.
Not many NHL regulars appeared in the Sabres lineup, so it was up to the rookies to dig deep and find a way to win – and they did exactly that. J-J Peterka was one of the players making his NHL preseason debut in this game, along with Jack Quinn, Linus Weissbach, and Oskari Laaksonen. Peterka and Weissbach were the main drivers behind the comeback, scoring one goal apiece after Michael Mersch brought the Sabres within one goal early in the third period. When the game went to overtime and shootout, Quinn was the hero scoring the lone shootout goal.
Despite icing an inexperienced roster and being down in the game, Granato never lost faith in his team, and knows that they can stay in any game so long as they do the little things right. “My challenge to them was, ‘Don’t overanalyze anything. We’re not playing hard enough. We need to elevate our intensity and passion for the game,'” Granato said. “I think that gets you in the game more.” His message must have resonated, because the Sabres completely turned things around and turned a poor performance into a memorable comeback.
Dell & Tokarski Make Their Cases In Goal
Aaron Dell made his debut in a Sabres sweater against the Blue Jackets, lacing up the pads in a game for the first time since signing with the Sabres during the NHL’s free agency period. He shared the crease with Dustin Tokarski, who came in halfway through the game to relieve Dell. Dell stopped 12 of the 15 shots he faced, while Tokarski stopped 16 of the 17 shots he faced while stopping all three of the Blue Jackets shootout attempts in extra time.
Dell and Tokarski will have the rest of the preseason to make their cases as one of the Sabres options in goal, but it’s unlikely either one will start the season on the opening night roster. Instead, both goalies will likely backstop the Sabres’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate Rochester Americans, where Tokarski spent most of last season before being called up due to goalie injuries. Ukko-Pekka Lukkonen and Craig Anderson are expected to be the starting duo for the Sabres in the meantime, but if one of Dell or Tokarski proves they deserve a shot to start the season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see head coach Don Granato honor their hard work.
Weissbach & Peterka Fuel Sabres Comeback
The Sabres were down 4-2 with less than three minutes to go in the game, when Weissbach set up Peterka for a one-time goal to put the Sabres within one goal of tying the game. Just over a minute later, Weissbach pounced on a rebound from Vinnie Hinostroza’s shot from the half wall, and beat Jackets’ goalie Jet Greaves to tie the game up and send the game to overtime, just after it looked like it was all over.
“He makes plays under pressure,” Granato said about Weissbach, the Sabres’ seventh-round pick from the 2017 draft. “He made a lot of plays under pressure. At moments where there’s limited time and space, he senses and feels what’s around him and the right play to make. He’s slippery. Very slippery player and obviously a very intelligent hockey player.”
When it came to overtime and the shootout, former eighth-overall pick Quinn sealed the deal, scoring off a sweet move on Greaves. “He pulled that off a couple of times in the practices, too,” Peterka said about Quinn’s goal. “I knew if he comes like that on the goalie, he will put that one in.”
It remains to be seen whether Granato will reward Weissbach and Peterka’s solid performances in the Sabres Prospects Challenge and the preseason so far with opening night roster spots, but these are two prospects in particular that could make the NHL lineup sooner than later. Peterka has developed nicely, and proved he can play alongside NHL talent while lighting up the World Championships playing on a line with Ottawa Senators star Tim Stützle. Weissbach finally looks like he’s developed into an NHL-ready player, and it could be worth giving him a shot this season.
Sabres Preseason Continues
The Sabres continue their preseason schedule on the road against the Detroit Red Wings, before returning home for a pair of matchups against the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Columbus Blue Jackets. They wrap up preseason action with a road game against the Penguins and a home game against the Red Wings, before opening the 2021-22 regular season at home at KeyBank Center vs. the Montreal Canadiens, as they embark on a long, 82-game season and hope to stay in it for as long as they can. One thing is for sure: the next week will see surprising players cut, new players make the roster, and an exciting new opportunity for this young group of players.
Brandon is a Buffalo Sabres Contributor for THW and Co-Host of THW’s ‘Sabres Scoop,’ who received his Master of Science in Sport Administration from Canisius College in Buffalo, NY, and founded his website, Seltytending, in 2017. He is an avid hockey writer and podcaster with prior work experience in the OJHL, NWHL, and NCAA. Twitter: @BSalts15