Monday night, all eyes were on Alexander Nylander. It was the first NHL game for the Buffalo Sabres top draft choice and expectations are high for the 19-year-old forward, particularly when it comes to producing offense.
Centering the highly-touted prospect in his NHL debut was Evan Rodrigues. The 23-year old was playing his 29th career NHL game, his 27th of this season.
The two prospects ended up on the same line against the Toronto Maple Leafs in KeyBank Center arriving via very different routes.
Nylander played one year of major-junior hockey, with the Mississauga Steelheads of the Ontario Hockey League, before becoming a first-round draft choice and turning pro, playing this season with the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League.
But Rodrigues was never in the mix for an NHL Draft Day experience. The native of Etobicoke, Ontario, went to Boston University and played four years of college hockey, including spending his senior season on a line with Jack Eichel which helped raise his profile.
After four years of development at the collegiate level, Rodrigues was able to sign with the Sabres as a free agent. He spent last year with the Rochester Americans, making his NHL debut late last season.
He again started this season in Rochester, earning a two-game recall in November.
Rodrigues came back on Feb. 11 and has stuck with the big team ever since, carving out a niche in the Sabres lineup.
"Just a high work ethic," Rodrigues said of his ability to stick around the Sabres for the final two months of the season. "I think I'm playing my best when I'm just working as hard as I can. Keeping things simple and not trying to do too much I think is what's helping me out."
What's also helped Rodrigues is a position change. He was a winger at Boston University and his first season in Rochester. But this year he started to play more center, learning the position first in Rochester then translating that to the NHL.
"I think it's a big difference," Rodrigues said of changing his forward position. "As a center you have a lot more responsibility in the defensive zone, but you're able to get the puck a little more and make some more passes and plays through the neutral zone. But then on the wing, you get in the O-zone and work the corner a little easier and create offense more. So there's upsides to both but it's been fun playing center."
The key for Rodrigues at center is "just being responsible," he said. "Making sure I'm the first guy back and supporting our D and making sure we can get out of our zone as quick as possible. I think when we do that we can have a good breakout pass and get out of the zone. We've had success because we can get it in, chip it in and get to work."
Getting to work. It's what has allowed Rodrigues to craft a career in hockey and make the necessarily adjustments – first to college then to the pro game.
"At any level there's always an adjustment. I think being a good player is being able to make those adjustments," Rodrigues said. "Being able to kind of know to pick your spots and know when to get in the corners, when to get in a battle and when to maybe lay off a guy. It's been a good learning curve and I think I've excelled at it.
"I think at this level you never really have a designated role necessarily. You just contribute and help the team win whether it's as third-line center, fourth-line center or winger. Wherever you're put you find ways to contribute and find ways to help the team. That's what I'm trying to do."
Kyle Okposo missed his third game with an undisclosed illness.
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said that Okposo "is still under the weather and not able to play."
Meanwhile, Sabres defenseman Cody Franson returned to the lineup after missing the last six games with a groin injury.
"It took longer than I hoped, but good to be back," Franson said. "It was a hyper-extension type thing. So it's just one of those things you just have to wait out and wait for it to settle back down. It took little bit for the inflammation to go away and back to normal."
"I think Cody's really made strides in his game for our team this year in a lot of areas and played really well for us," Bylsma said. "I think he's proved a lot with his play this year and been an effective player for us. He's coming off a groin injury and should be back at 100 percent."
There's been a whole lot of sibling rivalry in the Sabres game notes lately. Monday was the third straight game that a Sabre played against his brother. Monday it was Alexander Nylander vs. William Nylander of the Maple Leafs.
On Sunday, it was the younger Stephen Gionta getting the best of Brian Gionta when the New York Islanders scored a 4-2 win.
On March 28, Marcus Foligno faced his older brother, Nick Foligno with the captain of the Blue Jackets getting the win. Columbus defeated the Sabres, 3-1.