It took Alex Nylander just one NHL game to learn what too many Buffalo Sabres haven’t learned all year.
“You’re playing against the best players,” Nylander said Monday night. “You’ve got to be ready every shift.”
The Sabres certainly weren’t ready for the opening shift. Or the second. Or the third. Just fill in any number, and odds are great the Sabres weren’t ready for that shift.
In a season littered with disappearing acts, the Sabres saved one of their worst for their penultimate home game. Toronto toyed with Buffalo in KeyBank Center, delighting an arena full of Maple Leafs fans with a 4-2 victory.
The only thing close about the game was the score. Toronto scored three goals on its opening five shots. The Maple Leafs built a 26-5 shot edge before cruising home to a 45-22 advantage.
“We just didn’t come out prepared, ready to play that game,” captain Brian Gionta said. “You get behind, 3-0, the first five minutes of the game, then we had not much of a push all night.”
The Sabres had just eight shots through 40 minutes. They had nine giveaways.
“Sloppy,” center Jack Eichel said. “I’ve got to be better. I’m supposed to be a leader on this team. I just wasn’t sharp tonight. I’m not really sure what it was. It’s unfortunate. These are games that are real easy to get up for, especially playing Toronto.”
The Sabres will finish their home schedule Wednesday when Montreal visits. The season-ticket holders who sold their seats to Leafs fans wouldn’t be blamed for seeing if Canadiens backers are interested.
“We’ve got three games left, and no matter who you are on this team you’ve got stuff to prove,” Gionta said. “We’ve got to come out more prepared with more urgency, more care to our game. What we need to do these next three games is find a way to compete.”
The Sabres, who lost for the third straight game, continued to get younger and less experienced. Nylander, 19, made his NHL debut one day after C.J. Smith made his. If any veterans are bummed about losing playing time, they merely need to check Buffalo’s 32-35-12 record.
“It’s on us,” Gionta said. “If we’re not in this position and we’re in a race for a playoff spot or in a playoff spot, stuff like that doesn’t happen. It’s a result of what we did this year.”
Nylander, the No. 8 overall pick in last June’s NHL Draft, played 14:28. He had one missed shot, one giveaway and one takeaway. The right winger started with center Evan Rodrigues and left wing Marcus Foligno, and he also got shifts with Ryan O'Reilly and Evander Kane.
“You always want to get a ‘W,’ but I look forward to next game,” Nylander said. “It was a lot of fun. It’s a fast-paced game.”
As the number of games ticked toward zero, Nylander had a feeling his moment was coming. He got the call Sunday, giving him enough time to get to town and meet his brother. He met him again on the ice. The Maple Leafs’ William Nylander recorded his 38th assist and 60th point to continue a stellar rookie season.
Their father, longtime NHL forward Michael Nylander, took photos of the brothers in the hallway following the game.
“I had my brother and my dad to help me tremendously throughout the summer to come into the AHL,” Nylander said. “I think I’ve developed a lot in the AHL.”
Nylander is seventh on the Rochester Americans with nine goals, 18 assists and 27 points in 62 games. He had just two assists in his last nine games. Prior to that, he had a run of four goals and five points in eight games. Before that, he went 21 games without a goal.
The Sabres believe playing in the NHL will help Nylander show his skill. They’re going to give him a four-game look to get the career started.
After the first game, he already knows he has to come prepared for the final three or embarrassment will follow.
“It’s been a process for Alex this year,” Bylsma said. “It’s been a development part of his game and one he’s still in. The situation is such for our team that he’s going to get that opportunity here.”