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Sabres' Nilsson making the perfect first impression

ST. CATHARINES, Ont. – Anders Nilsson knew a couple of guys when he arrived in the Sabres’ dressing room, most notably former teammates Matt Moulson and Kyle Okposo, but to everyone else he was a mystery. Playing the most important position on the team, it was up to the goaltender to get off to a good start and make himself known throughout the organization.

He’s certainly accomplished that.

Nilsson backstopped Buffalo to a 1-0 shootout victory over Toronto on Thursday night, stopping 23 shots during regulation and overtime, plus all four in the breakaway challenge.

“You always want to make a good impression, but what it comes down to is helping your team win games,” Nilsson said in Meridian Centre. “My job is to stop the puck, and I’m trying to do that every time I come to the rink no matter if it’s practice, a scrimmage or an exhibition game.”

Nilsson has been as close to perfect as he could get during the opening week of training camp. He didn’t allow a goal during his 30 minutes of intrasquad scrimmage time, and he turned aside 26 of 27 shots Monday in his preseason debut against Minnesota.

“He wants to prove he can be in the net and be a capable goaltender when he gets the opportunity,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “He’s had two opportunities to this point, and he’s been really good in both of them. It gives you a comfortable feeling when you see a guy like that be able to backstop your team.”

The Sabres got impressive backup goaltending last season out of Chad Johnson, who left for Calgary. Nilsson was actually Plan B after free agent Jeff Zatkoff reneged on a verbal commitment to play in Buffalo, but the 26-year-old Nilsson is looking like a solid option so far.

“Anders played really, really well, made some big stops,” Moulson, who scored the only goal of the shootout, said of his former teammate with the New York Islanders. “He’s a guy that works extremely hard on and off the ice. He gets himself ready, and he’s been playing some excellent hockey during camp here.”

Nilsson had a relatively easy night as the Sabres outshot the Maple Leafs, 38-23, but he was impressive when he had to be. He got a pad on Nazem Kadri’s short-handed chance during the second period, then stopped Kadri, William Nylander, Peter Holland and Connor Carrick on their breakaways in the shootout.

“I’m feeling all right,” Nilsson said. “It’s still early on. I still feel I have some things I can be better on, but overall the guys in front of me have played two very good games. They didn’t give up a lot of scoring chances or a lot of shots. It was more a team shutout and a team win.

“It was a tight game. I  think we were the better team. We created a lot of scoring chances and really pushed them back in their zone. Over the 65 minutes, I think we really deserved the win.”

It’s impossible to lose when the goalie stops everything. He had to be perfect Thursday as the Sabres couldn’t beat Garret Sparks or Kasimir Kaskisuo. Both teams get another chance to find the net Friday night when they meet in a rematch in KeyBank Center.

Nilsson will get the night off, but the close nature of his two games has helped him ramp up for the regular season mentally.

“It helps you get in midseason shape,” he said. “It’s always good to play a couple games and get that rust out before the season starts.”

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