STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Zemgus Girgensons feels it when he steps on the ice. He feels his feet churning. He feels his mind racing. He feels like himself.
It’s been awhile.
The Buffalo Sabres forward had a season to forget last year, and after one preseason game he’s doing his best to clear it from his mind. Girgensons scored Buffalo’s only goal Monday night in a 2-1 loss to Minnesota, a welcome return to the score sheet for a player who didn’t appear on it enough in 2015-16.
“It’s always a good feeling when it crosses the line, so it’s nice to get that one,” Girgensons said in Pegula Ice Arena. “I definitely want improvement from last season. I want to show what I’m capable of, what I did the year before last year, kind of step my game up by a lot.”
Girgensons, who put up 15 goals and 31 points in 61 games as a go-to guy under Ted Nolan two years ago, generated little during Dan Bylsma’s first year on the bench. Girgensons recorded just seven goals and 11 assists in 71 games. He also failed to find a home, bouncing between center and wing in an aimless search.
Bylsma is planning to keep Girgensons at center with the hope the 22-year-old can remain in the middle of the action. He scored from the slot Monday.
“It’s a preseason goal, but it’s still an opportunity for him to feel good about himself,” Bylsma said. “Zemgus is a heart-and-soul, gutsy player, a player that’s got to work hard in all areas of the rink and bring that to the offensive zone. He’s going to get plenty of opportunities to do it.”
The 22-year-old’s downturn came in a contract year, and the restricted free agent settled for a one-year, $1.15 million deal. He’s banking on a big year and better negotiations next summer.
In addition to the goal, Girgensons took four shots and won nine of his 14 faceoffs. It’s the debut he was looking for after a solid start to training camp.
“Playing, I can feel it,” he said. “I can feel my legs going, my mind working on the ice. I already feel better than I did last year.”
Of course, it’s pretty easy to feel better than last year.
“It came down to confidence level,” Girgensons said. “I was down and didn’t believe in myself sometimes. Definitely right now I feel like I’m capable of doing more, and I’m going to try to bring it every day.”
While Girgensons was the only Sabres player to find the net, he had plenty of help in the offensive zone. Buffalo peppered Wild goaltender Alex Stalock with 40 shots. The Sabres had 17 in the first period, but a rebound blast from the slot by Girgensons was the only one that mattered.
“We had plenty of opportunities to score more than just one,” Girgensons said. “Definitely the first and third period we were on them. We were forechecking. We were doing things right. We were hitting, getting to pucks. The second period we kind of backed off a little bit. That’s something moving forward we just have to keep going.”
The Wild, who tied the game late in the second period, scored on a four-on-three power play with 4.6 seconds left to stun Buffalo. The Sabres will play their second preseason game Tuesday night when Ottawa visits KeyBank Center (7 p.m., MSG, Radio WGR-AM 550).
Monday’s contest in the arena funded by Terry and Kim Pegula actually felt like the first home game for the Sabres.
“It’s a cool place,” said defenseman Casey Nelson, who had an assist. “I wish we could have got a ‘W,’ but we’ll keep working.”