Nicholas Baptiste is pretty familiar with the New York State Thruway. He's been back and forth between Rochester and Buffalo three times this season. When the Buffalo Sabres have suffered an injury among the forwards, he's been the guy on call.
Eventually, he'd like to work that into a permanent gig in the National Hockey League.
But at 22 and in his third year of pro hockey, he's still growing into his game and taking every opportunity to learn, improve, and turn his potential into tangible results.
"Every game I play it's exciting for me. I don't even think I’m at 30 games yet so every night's exciting for me right now," said Baptiste, who played his 23rd NHL game on Tuesday. "I’m just fortunate enough to be playing with such great players. I'm just trying to play my best and work my hardest to stay in the lineup every night. I think I'm starting to earn a lot more of coach's trust and I want to continue to do that and help this team win."
Baptiste gave the Sabres instant spark on Tuesday night, scoring the game's first goal while helping the team to set an energetic tone in a 5-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in KeyBank Center.
He was among a handful of skaters who took the ice for an optional practice on Wednesday before the team flew to Ottawa for Thursday night's meeting with the Senators.
Baptiste was last with the Sabres from Jan. 29 to Feb. 1 when Jacob Josefson was out with a lower body injury.
When Josefson returned, Baptiste went back to the Rochester Americans despite playing well over four games. But Baptiste understands the deal. He's on a two-way contract which means the Sabres can make moves with him without dealing with waivers, giving him value as a movable part.
And with each move back to Rochester, he talks with the Sabres coaching staff to get a little more feedback, a few more cues, as to what he needs to develop in order to take up residence in Buffalo.
Baptiste did enough in that previous Sabres stint to earn the call when Jack Eichel went down with a right high-ankle sprain on Feb. 10. And while no one in the room wants their best player, one of the stars of the NHL, out with an injury, it does create opportunity for players like Baptiste to show their value and demonstrate how they've put advice from the coaches into practice.
"I've talked to coach a ton about how I've got to play," Baptiste said. "As you can see I'm just using my speed and being physical, taking the puck wide, and making it tough on their D. Whether I'm playing eight minutes or 18 minutes here or in (Rochester), I'm going to try and do the same thing – use my speed effectively and create offense that way."
Those conversations with the coaches are paying off. The offensive numbers may not be turning any heads (he has two goals in nine NHL games and 18 points in 36 AHL games) but his energy, the way he is using his speed, and his play away from the net, has become more consistent and noticeable.
"I think Nick has done a terrific job when he's been up here," Sabres coach Phil Housley said. "He's used his speed to create. ... Also I think his wall play has really improved. That's why he's getting shifts late in the third period. I wanted to get him out more (on Tuesday) and reward him but just (couldn't) with all the special teams that were going on during the game, I'd like to see him get more ice time."
Sabres center Ryan O'Reilly continued his dominance on faceoffs in Tuesday's game, winning 25. That came after setting a new career-high mark with 29 faceoff wins in Sunday's loss to Colorado. O'Reilly is on pace to have the second most faceoff wins in a season in the NHL. He currently has 856 wins; Rod Brind'Amour won 1,268 with Carolina in the 2005-06 season.
For reference, the NHL started keeping faceoff stats in the 1997-98 season.
Kyle Okposo knows all about O'Reilly's prowess in the faceoff circle. He's faced it as an opponent, back when Okposo was with the New York Islanders and O'Reilly with the Colorado Avalanche. And he remembers one game in particular.
"He takes a lot of draws and he wins a lot of draws," Okposo said. "You can see it in opposing centers when they're going to line up against him. They're trying to think of different ways to beat him. The fascinating part is he pretty much takes faceoffs the same way all the time and nobody seems to be able to figure it out. I know just in my little experience, I was with the Islanders. We had a six-on-five at the end of the game and I took three draws in a row against him and he won three dead clean. It's pretty special what he does."
The NHL trade deadline is Feb. 26, but the Buffalo Sabres' next opponent, the Ottawa Senators, have already made a deal.
Late Tuesday, the Senators traded veteran defenseman Dion Phaneuf and forward Nate Thompson to the Los Angeles Kings for forward Marian Gaborik and center Nate Shore. Phaneuf was pulled from Ottawa's bench on Tuesday during the Senators's 6-3 loss to the Penguins in Pittsburgh.
"I’m excited to be going to the Los Angeles Kings," Phaneuf told media in Pittsburgh Tuesday night. "It's going to be a real good experience for me to be able to join that team. … I'm excited about the team that they have, where they're at in the standings and I'm going to go there and do my best to do whatever I can to help their team."
Phaneuf has 16 points in 52 games this season. He has played in 954 games in his 13-year NHL career that included stints with the Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs and the Senators.
The Senators have lost their last two and sit just three points ahead of the Sabres in the Atlantic Division with 47 points (19-27-9).