PITTSBURGH - After a goal-filled game featuring wild momentum swings, two players walked out of the Penguins’ arena averaging more than a point per game: Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Buffalo’s Casey Nelson.
OK, so Nelson has played in only three NHL games, but the fact he can be linked to Crosby in any category shows how much of an impact he’s had since joining the Sabres last week.
Nelson recorded two more assists Tuesday during a 5-4 shootout loss to the Penguins, giving him four points in three appearances. The 23-year-old defenseman has reached the scoresheet in every game since leaving Minnesota State after his junior year.
“I told him don’t waste all of his points too early,” Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe said. “Every time we score a goal I think he’s got an assist on it.
“It’s been great. He’s having success, and it’s good to see. He’s kind of realizing that he can play at this level, and going into the summertime he’s going to know what it takes to compete at this level. It’s been great to see and it’s definitely a bright spot.”
Nelson was a much sought-after free agent, and he’s proving why with his playmaking ability. He’s been on the mark with cross-ice passes and short reads.
“The biggest thing, and it’s real noticeable, is his heads-up play, his head-up ability to play with the puck and make plays with the puck,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “That’s a unique ability to see from a kid who’s just stepping in the lineup.”
Both of Nelson’s assists in Consol Energy Center came on the power play. He skated 14:05, including 2:29 of man-advantage time.
“He’s obviously a good puck-moving guy, good skater,” Buffalo blue-liner Zach Bogosian said. “It’s never easy when you’re coming into the games with this many games left. A lot of teams are fighting for playoffs. The games are intense, the game’s fast, and he’s stepped in right away and done a good job.”
Nelson assisted on the opening goal to help the Sabres build a shocking 3-0 lead after one period. He and his teammates felt their eardrums shake at the end of the second as Pittsburgh scored four straight to take the lead. The standing-room-only crowd of 18,513 went bonkers, giving Nelson quite a different experience from the 3,753 fans he played in front of at Minnesota State.
“Loud crowd, that’s for sure,” Nelson said. “It was special to be out there with all these guys. It’s just exciting, that’s for sure, but a tough loss.”
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Nelson finished the game at minus-2 after being on the ice for a three-on-two rush and short-handed tally by the Penguins.
“I’ve just got to keep getting better, defensively especially,” he said. “There’s big, fast guys out there, so mistakes come easily. You can’t let one of those forwards get a step on you. They’re way quicker.”
Many are bigger, too. Nelson is 6-foot-2 but weighs just 183. Only 5-7 captain Brian Gionta weighs less among the Sabres at 178 pounds.
“I’ve got to put some weight on here in the offseason, but I’m going to soak it all in now and learn the best I can,” Nelson said. “It’s all new and everything’s different. All the guys are awesome, though. It feels like I’ve been here all year. They’ve just taken me in and given me challenges. Overall, it’s exciting.
“It’s just tough to give up that lead, but we’ll be better next time.”