By Jourdon LaBarber for Sabres.com
For the majority of the players on the ice at KeyBank Center on Monday night, the preseason opener between the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes was their first real game action since early April. For at least one period, you could tell.
Rust was evident on both sides in the early going of an eventual 3-2 overtime win for the Hurricanes. Phil Housley put it this way: the Sabres had a hard time executing on breakout passes, and when they did make a pass they had a hard time catching it.
As the game went on, however, the rust began to wear off. By the time the third period came around, the Sabres were sustaining pressure and showing at least a taste of what Sabres hockey might look like with a Housley system.
"I thought as the game went on we got better and better," Housley said. "I liked the way the fellas played."Seth Griffith and Jake McCabe scored goals for Buffalo. Robin Lehner made 14 saves on 16 shots in two periods of work prior to being relieved by Linus Ullmark, whose only goal against came from Derek Ryan on a breakaway in overtime.
Ryan led the way for Carolina with two goals and an assist, while Josh Jooris also found the back of the net.
McCabe's goal, which evened the score at 2-2 late in the second period, was perhaps the best example of the difference in the Sabres style under Housley. The coach told his defensemen to play loose and join the rush when possible, and McCabe jumped on an opportunity with the Sabres shorthanded.
McCabe caught a pass on the rush from another defenseman in Taylor Fedun and went far side with a shot from the left circle.
"It's one of those things where you want to have a 5-man attack," McCabe said. "When we get the green light to jump in and you feel it's the right time to jump in, you for sure should. They're barking at us on the bench to make sure we're in the offensive zone [and] defensive zone."
"I thought our D's timing up the ice was really good," Housley said. "They got involved with the play, they got involved with the rush, you could see the weak side was open on a break out and the guys joined the rush. Jake McCabe's goal was a perfect example of that."
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As fun as that style may be, it also puts responsibility on the defensemen to make the correct reads as to when to jump into the play and on forwards to recognize when they need to drop back and assume a defensive role. McCabe said it's a matter of forming the right habits, and the Sabres seemed to get better at it as the game went on.
"Going forward, we'll get more comfortable with it," he said. "I think you saw at times in the offensive zone we did a really good job with it. Other times there were times where we could've done it and we didn't do it, maybe we were hesitant. It's all a comfort thing."
The Sabres established pressure consistently in the third period, with Rasmus Ristolainen in particular showing a tendency to get involved near and below the goal line. Buffalo's top line of Zemgus Girgensons, Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo was also consistent throughout the night on the forecheck.
Ultimately, the chances they did earn to break the tie in that third period fell short, including a look at an open net for C.J. Smith. Ristolainen hit Girgensons with an end-to-end pass in overtime only to see Girgensons' shot stopped by Carolina goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, and a neutral-zone turnover led to Ryan's winner shortly after.
Not the result they wanted, of course, but they'll have plenty of time to build on the loss with six preseason games still left to play.
"It was unfortunate we lost," Housley said. "I thought the guys should've got rewarded better. But you know, we'll work. We'll continue to work on our game."
Rodrigues makes strong impressionDespite having shown over 30 games for the Sabres that he could be a reliable center, Evan Rodrigues said at the end of last season that he didn't believe he had cemented himself as an NHL player. He certainly played like he had something to prove on Monday.
Rodrigues made a good pass on a 2-on-1 rush to set up Griffith's goal in the first period, and then went on to be one of Buffalo's most consistent forwards throughout the night. He finished the game with two assists, three shot attempts and a penalty drawn.
"I think he's been terrific," Housley said. "Not only in this game, I think his work ethic has been really, really good and you could see tonight his great poise with the puck. His lateral movements are really good and he had a couple of quality chances, made a heck of a play on that first goal. It'll be nice to look at him as we move through training camp."
Rodrigues has played with a chip on his shoulder since signing with the Sabres as an undrafted free agent out of Boston University prior to the 2015-16 season. He went into the summer with that same approach, identifying his speed as an area in need of improvement and working with a group of players - including Jack Eichel - to hone in and improve on it.
In the early going, the fruits of his labor are paying off.
"I feel like I've always been an underdog my whole life," Rodrigues said. "(I) didn't really get drafted, I'm a smaller guy. I'm starting to catch up. My pace is there, my speed's there, my speed's there. I've always felt like I had a brain for the game, so I'm just trying to show that to the people in the stands."
Penguins up next
The Sabres will continue their preseason slate on Tuesday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Pegula Ice Arena, home of the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Puck drop is scheduled for 7 p.m. Listen to the game live on WGR 550, then check here on Sabres.com for postgame reaction and highlights.