The Sabres lead the NHL in scoring average in the preseason with 4.25 goals per game and that's with often playing a split-squad lineup. That changes tonight in First Niagara Center against the Toronto Maple Leafs, as what should be the regular-season top-six forwards will play together for the first time.
That means Ryan O'Reilly will center Evander Kane and Tyler Ennis, while Jack Eichel will be between Matt Moulson and Brian Gionta.
"We're getting closer to a full lineup," said coach Dan Bylsma. "From a coaching standpoint, it's going to be a little bit more like getting players in the right spot and playing them in those spots. To have the top-6 guys out there for the most part, we'll probably get 12 goals right now."
He was joking. We think. Although it's still preseason, it's nonetheless interesting to note the Sabres have piled up back-to-back games of six goals -- something they have not done in regular-season play since 2011.
"It is preseason but the offense has been there," said Eichel, who will make his home preseason debut. "It's a testament to the coaches, to the system they have us running and the work guys in this room have put in. You can't play offense without defense and our D have done a great job moving the puck up ice and getting us out of our zone."
Eichel will get some of the pressure taken off tonight in defensive responsibilities with O'Reilly also in the lineup to play in the No. 1 slot.
"It's great to have Ryan in the lineup and playing the other team's top line," said Eichel. "You can learn so much from him over the course of a game in how he approaches faceoffs, how he plays in the D-zone. He's been around the league and he's had success. As a young centerman, some of the things I need to work on he does really well and he's a great guy to learn from."
Eichel has a goal and three assists in his two games to date but his plus-3 rating has impressed Bylsma has well.
"I don't want to say to disregard the offense but you can disregard the offense in what I'm looking for, how he's playing the game and what he needs to bring," Bylsma said. "After game one (the Sept. 21 win in Minnesota), I said he played his best game I've seen him play away from the puck. That's what I need to see from him. It's easy to turn on a highlight and see an a highlight and say he's playing well and doing well but that's not really where I'm focused on Jack's game and what he's bringing."
The lines will thus look like this:
Rasmus Ristolainen will make his preseason debut on defense after returning to practice Monday for the first time. He will be joined tonight by Mike Weber, Carlo Colaiacovo, Cody Franson, Matt Donovan and 18-year-old Brendan Guhle.
"We're in an injury situation right now where he's in the lineup tonight and there's a good chance he'll be in another one," Bylsma said. "Don't tell him that, please."
Bylsma was smiling when he said that, and with good reason. As a second-round pick, Guhle has become the surprise of camp with his smooth skating and heady play. It's reasonable to think he could break camp in the NHL and not immediately head back to Prince Albert of the Western League.
Robin Lehner is expected to get the full game in goal against a pretty representative Leafs lineup. Up front will include the likes of James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Joffrey Lupul, Michael Grabner and top prospect William Nylander. Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly will be on defense.