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Buffalo's blue-line injuries create opportunities for young defensemen

The best way Brady Austin could describe his first NHL game was "surreal."

It was, after all, the moment the 23-year old had been working toward his entire life. This was the goal from the time he put on skates and picked up a stick -- to play in the National Hockey League.

For Austin, the experience had an extra bit of interest. His first NHL game was against Detroit in the famed Joe Louis Arena, a place he once toured as a junior hockey player with the London Knights in awe of the surroundings and the dressing room.

But he wanted to keep the wonder at bay Monday night, throwing his weight around on his first shift. Paired with veteran Zach Bogosian, Austin threw a hit on Detroit forward Justin Abdelkader that announced his presence in the big league with authority.

"Getting that bump early on definitely helped," Austin said of that early hit. "It really couldn’t have been timed any better."

Timing can be everything and this year, to be a defenseman in the Buffalo Sabres organization, means the opportunity to get some looks.

The blue line has suffered injuries all season. Josh Gorges missed 12 games with a hip injury. Jake McCabe missed five with a shoulder injury. Zach Bogosian missed 20 games with an MCL sprain then another six with a rib injury. Dmitry Kulikov has been dealing with a back injury all season and remains out of the lineup along with newly sidelined Cody Franson (undisclosed), Justin Falk (calf) and Taylor Fedun (foot).

Austin was the fifth defenseman to play for the Sabres on a recall this season. Fedun has been on the I-90 shuffle. Erik Burgdoerfer played two games in December for the Sabres. Brendan Guhle was an emergency recall from his Western Hockey League major-junior team. Casey Nelson was on his second call-up, joining Austin on March 20.

The two were reassigned to the Amerks late Wednesday afternoon along with forward Justin Bailey. But for two games, Austin was part of the Buffalo blue line. Last week when the Sabres returned from their California road trip with four defensemen out of the lineup, Austin knew there was a possibility he would get his first NHL opportunity.

"I thought maybe there was a chance and then" Amerks coach "Dan Lambert spoke to three of us defensemen, said there’s a possibility that one or two might be going up but it’s not for sure. ... You don’t want to get your hopes up because you might not get the call, but it’s always in the back of your head," Austin said."

Austin, a seventh-round pick of the Sabres in 2012, has played 199 games with the Amerks in the AHL over three seasons. At the time of his recall, he had nine points (two goals, seven assists) in 61 games. A defenseman without flash, he earned his call-up with work ethic, physical play and solid skating.

"We’ve no doubt had a rash of injuries which has opened the door and is an opportunity for him," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "He’s not a highly heralded guy. He doesn’t have highly heralded skill. Doesn’t have the flash of a Brendan Guhle or that type of pedigree. He’s a big-body guy. He's got to play a physical brand and style. That’s what he’s got to be for him to have an opportunity to play in this league.

"I thought he did a pretty good job of that right off the hop of the game," Bylsma said of Austin's NHL debut in Detroit. "He set the tone with the hit on Abdelkader and I was really impressed with his skating throughout the game, being able to defend but also going back for pucks, making simple, smart plays."

That was the plan -- simple plays. Austin also listened closely to defensive partner Bogosian in that first outing.

"I was just trying to keep it simple and trying to do the right things," Austin said. "I was pretty comfortable playing with," Bogosian. "He was talking to me the whole time. All the guys were pretty good."

Austin had a chance to rotate through almost all of the Sabres healthy defensemen in Tuesday's 3-1 loss to Pittsburgh in KeyBank Center. He started the game paired again with Bogosian but when Rasmus Ristolainen was given a game misconduct at 8:46 of the first period, the five-man defensive unit was cobbled together on the fly.

Austin finished with 19 minutes of ice time and was credited with one shot and four hits. He was part of the defense that was burned by Pittsburgh's Nick Bonino for the game-winning goal late in the third period.

The Sabres were off on Wednesday but at 6 p.m. the team sent out a press release that Austin, Nelson and Bailey were headed back to the AHL. Buffalo returns to practice Thursday and don't play again until hosting the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday, giving the Sabres time to recover from injuries.

Thursday afternoon, the Sabres will also learn if they will lose Ristolainen to a suspension. He will have a hearing with NHL Player Safety for his interference call on Jake Guentzel, which resulted in a concussion for the Pittsburgh forward.

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