EDMONTON, Alberta − Buffalo Sabres coach Dan Bylsma made it clear Friday he wasn’t happy with a spotty effort from his defense corps in Thursday’s season-opening loss to Montreal.
So Bylsma had a good chuckle Saturday afternoon when asked, given that analysis, if this is the best time to be meeting Connor McDavid and the high-flying Edmonton Oilers.
The Sabres make their debut Sunday night in Edmonton’s new Rogers Place, and fans here figure to be pumped for the team’s second regular-season game in the glittering $483 million building. The Oilers are 2-0, with wins over Calgary by scores of 7-4 and 5-3.
McDavid has been involved in six of his team’s 12 goals, scoring three and assisting on three others to lead the NHL in scoring. He is the first Oiler with six points in the team’s first two games since Wayne Gretzky had a goal and five assists in 1987-88, his last season in Edmonton.
“As hot as they’ve been and with the speed they’re coming at you, it’s going to be a big challenge,” Bylsma said after his team worked out in the attached Rogers Community Rink. “I watched their first two games now and I was too young to understand the Edmonton of old and the rolling of waves of the offense, but that’s what I was thinking about watching those last two games.”
McDavid, named the youngest captain in NHL history last month at age 19, said he’s still striving to play a more well-rounded game and his team needs to do likewise.
“You want to want to win the game any way you can and it’s definitely nicer winning it 7-4 than losing 7-4,” McDavid said here Saturday. “If you’re going to win 1-0 or 10-9 it’s about getting it done but ultimately we do need to tighten it up. I don’t think you can expect us to get 5-7 goals every game. That’s not the type of hockey that’s successful.”
So far, however, it has been. Second-year man Leon Draisaitl has four points in the two games while Jordan Eberle, McDavid’s right winger, and newly signed defenseman Kris Russell have three apiece.
What can the Sabres do against McDavid? Mind the gap and not give him free range to roam. Cut off passing lanes. Make crisp passes out of their zone to limit turnovers, a big failure Thursday.
“He’s one of those guys who are so smart and have so much speed they tend to get behind you when you’re not looking,” said Buffalo defenseman Jake McCabe. “And you have to have a good gap because with all the speed like that coming at you, it’s not easy to defend.”
“He’s certainly feeling it,” Bylsma said. “Six points seems like a lot and there’s probably three or four more points out there with the opportunities he had. A breakaway, a crack at the empty net against Calgary. Six is an awful lot but he could have more.”
There is some hope the Sabres could have Dmitry Kulikov back in the lineup Sunday to make his debut. Kulikov missed the opener with tailbone bruised that has bothered him since he was injured in his lone preseason appearance. Bylsma said Kulikov is rapidly improving and could be ready to go, which would give the Sabres more of a physical element against McDavid.
But what’s that old adage? You can’t hit something you can’t catch.
“You just can’t give them too much space in the zone,” said Rasmus Ristolainen. “The best defense can be your offense, keeping the puck in their zone.”
McDavid was a winner against the Sabres last year in Buffalo with an overtime goal, as he went wide on Ristolainen and beat Robin Lehner with a backhand. Ristolainen went head to head with him again during Team North America’s 4-1 win over Finland in the teams’ first game at the World Cup of Hockey last month in Toronto.
“He played really well and their whole team did,” Ristolainen said. “He has a lot of skill and speed and we have to be hard on him.”
Kulikov could go in the lineup for youngster Casey Nelson, who struggled badly at times against Montreal. McCabe said the same could be said about most of Buffalo’s back end.
“I know myself, my first 10 minutes was very sub-par,” said McCabe. “It’s first-game jitters and it’s not an excuse but everyone was amped up. It was my first-ever home opener. We were all pretty excited and we settled in better. We need to be better puck managers and that starts with us in the back end, starting the play with transitions and in the neutral zone. Passes need to be on the tape.”
McDavid, who had 48 points in 45 games last year, was a standout at the World Cup and has carried that play into the season. He said his second year in the league is a huge difference in confidence from his rookie year.
“As a rookie, it’s tough to come into the league unless you’re Auston Matthews. For us normal people it’s hard,” McDavid joked about the Toronto sensation’s four-goal debut. “I definitely feel a lot more comfortable this year. I feel pretty good and very confident out there.”