SUNRISE, Fla. -- On Thursday night, Sean Malone was playing for Harvard in the NCAA Frozen Four in Chicago. After a heartbreaking defeat, he flew home with his team to Boston on Friday. The alarm rang early Saturday morning, in the 3:30 a.m. range for a 5 a.m. flight south.
The early wakeup call was worth it. The West Seneca native signed a two-year, entry-level contract and made his NHL debut for the Buffalo Sabres Saturday night against the Florida Panthers.
"It's definitely surreal," Malone, 21, said in BB&T Center. "Hanging out with these guys who have played here all year, it's really cool to see what they're going through. Talking to those guys it's helping me get adjusted here and I'm looking forward to this."
Malone became the seventh player born in the Buffalo area to play for the Sabres. He joins Cole Schneider, Justin Bailey, Marcus Foligno, Patrick Kaleta, Tim Kennedy and Scott Thomas. Malone said his favorite Sabre was former Buffalo co-captain Chris Drury.
"At the end of the day, when you're a kid growing up in that area, you dream is to wear the blue and gold," Malone said. "Fortunately I'm able to do that and I'm really excited for the opportunity."
The 6-foot, 190-pound Malone, Buffalo's sixth-round pick in 2013, centered Buffalo's fourth line, between Zemgus Girgensons and Nicolas Deslauriers. He played 12 minutes, 12 seconds, went 5-3 on faceoffs and had one shot on goal.
"The first couple shifts were just getting used to the pace and I got used to it as the game went on and started to play a little bit more," Malone said. "The first period you don't know what to expect, don't know the team you're playing. It was a quick adjustment but I think I adjusted to the pace fine. I got a little more confident toward the end there."
"I liked the way he supported the puck in the D-zone, the way he made outlet passes," said coach Dan Bylsma. "I thought he stepped in and did just fine."
Malone finished third on the Harvard roster this year with 42 points in 36 games. He had 18 goals and 27 assists as the Crimson advanced to the national semifinals. Their 2-1 loss to Minnesota-Duluth came on a goal by Eden native Alex Iafallo. Malone was one of two Harvard players to hit the crossbar in the final 20 seconds during a desperate push for a tying goal.
"I really liked our response there," Malone said. "We had 30 seconds left and there was no doubt we were going to score that goal. It's definitely something I'll think about for a while."
Malone said his Boston-based advisor, Matt Kaetor, told him the Sabres were interested in signing him and giving him a chance to play in the NHL with Marcus Foligno missing both games this weekend with a knee injury. Malone said he thought he had a chance to sign with the Sabres after the Frozen Four although it was more likely to play in Rochester than the NHL.
"I had an idea that was possible but I didn't think it was probable to be honest," he said. "My advisor lined it out for me the beginning of yesterday. I talked to Tim Murray and they were able to finalize something for today and I'm appreciative for the opportunity."
Malone had 24 goals and 33 assists in his first three seasons at Harvard, enduring a pair of offseason hip surgeries. His big senior year put him back on the Sabres' radar.
"My skating has improved over the last four years and I'm hoping to bring in a quicker pace," he said. "That's one of my assets. My overall strength improved in college over four years. You get a chance to develop and it's paid off for me. I'm looking forward to a summer where I can actually work out and am excited for the offseason too."
While thrilled to get an NHL chance, Malone was still reflective on the Harvard loss.
"Our team accomplished a lot and we had a chance to be one of the most decorated teams in Harvard hockey history," Malone said. "To come up short is tough. ... We were not very good when I was a freshman and to see it all come together at the end was pretty special. I thought it was a great year and those guys will be my brothers for life."
In addition to Foligno, the Sabres scratched Cody Franson, William Carrier and C.J. Smith. Linus Ullmark was called up from Rochester to serve as backup goaltender. Bylsma said Anders Nilsson has been nursing an arm injury and didn't make the trip after trying to practice Friday in HarborCenter.
With Tampa Bay eliminated from the playoff race late Saturday night, there's a chance Ullmark could get his first NHL start of the season Sunday. Robin Lehner made 34 saves Saturday in what could be his final appearance.
"We didn't come out to play and it wasn't all that competitive," Lehner said after Saturday's game. "They came out to play and we didn't have much today unfortunately."
As he has more than once the last couple weeks, Lehner again issued a carefully-worded rebuke to his teammates about their play.
"People are playing for spots either for this team or around the league," Lehner said. "You can't just throw your skates out there. You've got to show what you're made of. We've got to play for our logo too. Make no mistake, people in the stands see who want it and who doesn't."
Bylsma said he had no update on winger Kyle Okposo, who is believed to have been released from Buffalo General Hospital in the last couple of days. WIVB-TV initially reported Okposo had been released in the wake of suffering a serious illness that remains undisclosed.
Counting Saturday's game and Sunday's finale at Tampa Bay, Okposo will have sat out the final six games of the season due to his illness and 16 of the final 18 after missing 10 due to a rib injury.