C.J. Smith had a day he’ll never forget. Now it is Alex Nylander’s turn.
Smith, signed by the Sabres out of college last week, had an assist in his NHL debut Sunday. He showed a deft touch with the puck and speed in KeyBank Center, but he was as disappointed with the result as everyone else in Buffalo’s dressing room.
The Sabres gave up two goals in the final 10:41 to drop a 4-2 decision to the New York Islanders.
“It was exciting to get the first one out of the way,” Smith said. “It was exciting to get a point, but it’s not really the way you wanted to start.”
Nylander will look for a win in his debut Monday. A source says Buffalo is calling up the No. 8 overall pick from last year’s NHL Draft, and the 19-year-old is expected to be in the lineup when the Toronto Maple Leafs visit downtown.
“He’s got a high skill level,” said Sabres center and former Rochester teammate Evan Rodrigues. “He got drafted high for that reason, and that’s what he’s going to bring to the table. He’s going to bring a skill set. He’s going to bring an offensive game.
“If he keeps it simple, he’ll do well. I think it’s hard for someone who’s as highly touted as him. That is something that may be difficult, but it’s something you have to let him know.”
Nylander has nine goals, 18 assists and 27 points in 62 games with the Amerks. He sat out Rochester’s visit to Albany on Sunday to prepare for Monday’s debut.
The appearance will be an even bigger deal because his brother, William, is second on the Leafs in points. The rookie has 22 goals, 37 assists and 59 points in 76 games.
Smith started his career averaging a point per game with a nice second-period play. Evander Kane circled with the puck at his own blue line and fed Smith at the New York blue line. Kane bolted up ice to join Smith on a two-on-one, and the rookie put a backhand on the stick of Kane.
After Kane deposited his 27th goal, he pointed at Smith in celebration and in recognition of the pass. Smith smiled in the group hug then tapped gloves with the rest of the team at the bench.
“It’s something you dream about, and to finally get that first one was pretty cool,” Smith said. “He just made a pretty good pass, then I just heard him calling. I was able to get it past the D, and he had a good finish on it.”
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Smith, who left UMass Lowell after his junior season to sign a two-year deal with the Sabres, finished with two shots in 9:57 of ice time.
“The first period I felt like I was a little tense, but once I was able to find my feet, find some time and space, the game got a little better,” the 22-year-old said. “You get some jitters looking around and seeing all the people out there.”
The 5-foot-11, 185-pounder immediately noticed the difference from the college game.
“A lot bigger bodies out there,” he said. “The time and space gets taken away a lot quicker, so it’s just being able to find my time and space, and find out where other guys are going to be.”
Smith started the game with Rodrigues and right wing Brian Gionta. He got a few shifts with others, too.
“In the second and the third, he showed some jump, showed some shiftiness,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “He showed that speed and quickness and dartiness.”
Smith became just the second Iowa-born player to reach the NHL, joining goaltender Scott Clemmensen. He had three family members and 10 friends in town to watch.
“He competed,” Rodrigues said. “He made some nice plays. That first game’s always a memorable one. I thought he played pretty well. It’s nice to see him get a point, too.”