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Opportunity knocks for Sabres rookie Ruhwedel

Chad Ruhwedel’s flight back to Boston was awful. The pain of losing Thursday in college hockey’s Frozen Four shook him more than any turbulence he’d encounter, and he and his UMass Lowell teammates exited the plane ride from Pittsburgh knowing their fantasies had just been extinguished.

While Ruhwedel was airborne, however, another dream presented itself. He turned on his phone, saw messages from his adviser and mother, and learned that the Buffalo Sabres wanted him – immediately.

Shaken from the loss and mesmerized at the news, Ruhwedel decided to take a timeout and headed to campus with his coach, Norm Bazin. They weighed the benefits of staying at school for his senior year against the opportunity to go pro, a lengthy discussion that ended with Ruhwedel preparing for another plane ride.

This one went much more smoothly. Ruhwedel landed in Buffalo on Saturday morning armed with a two-year, $1.85 million contract, and a few hours later he was on the ice for the Sabres’ 1-0 victory over Philadelphia.

“It’s been pretty incredible,” Ruhwedel said in First Niagara Center. “The team had a tough loss in the Frozen Four a couple days back, and fortunately enough Buffalo gave me a call and gave me a good opportunity.

“When you have a good opportunity, sometimes you just have to take it and run with it. These chances don’t come around very often. Every kid dreams of this.”

The 22-year-old began dreaming of it while growing up in San Diego, and his growth at UMass Lowell made it a reality. The free agent defenseman was named a first-team All-America on Friday, capping a season that made teams take notice.

The Sabres were one of them.

“He’s someone that our scouting staff identified fairly early on in this season,” General Manager Darcy Regier said. “We followed him through the year and expressed an interest from the start of the year with his representative and just kind of stayed with it. It came down to a number of teams, but he decided to sign here.”

The No. 1 reason was playing time. Competition for college free agents is fierce, so teams need to provide extra incentives. Some clubs offer roster spots. The Sabres offered immediate playing time.

Buffalo needed a defenseman after Tyler Myers broke a bone in his leg Thursday. Rather than call up a prospect from Rochester, they offered the gig to Ruhwedel.

“It’s what you have to do to get the player signed now,” Regier said. “You have to make a commitment to put him on your roster, and so you have to have a comfort level with them playing some games here.

“My comfort level is good with him. He’s an older player and so he’s not someone just coming out of junior. He’s had a real good collegiate career and obviously has been recognized as a top defenseman in the country. We think he’ll be fine, and we’re excited to have him in the organization.”

Ruhwedel was nearly flawless in his debut. The 5-foot-11, 188-pounder skated 13 minutes and attempted four shots. It’s a continuation of a stellar season with the River Hawks in which he recorded seven goals, 23 points and a plus-16 rating in 41 games.

“He handled it perfectly,” said Sabres blue-line mate Mike Weber, who marveled at Ruhwedel’s quick acclimation. “About 12:30 I met him, said, ‘Hey, how you doing? I’m Mike and I’m your partner, so let’s have a good one.’

“He was solid out there, made a lot of smart plays. … He’s only going to get better.”

Ruhwedel was still running on adrenaline after the game, which was viewed by his mom, Robin, and sister, Evan. He anticipates being a little calmer today when the Sabres host Tampa Bay.

“Getting a good skate in warm-up kind of helped me out, cooled me down,” Ruhwedel said. “Trust me, I had a lot of questions before, and Weber answered all of them. The coaching staff was great, made me feel right at home. They just said, ‘Play your game, go out there and have fun.’ That was the most important thing. I tried to do that.

“After you get that first shift out of the way, it’s hockey, so you get used to it. It was a lot of fun.”