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Mike Harrington: Antipin scratches surface of his ability

A lot was expected from Victor Antipin. When you're signing a free agent from the KHL, this isn't like drafting an 18-year-old or waiting on a big prospect like Brendan Guhle to develop on defense.

The word first came out back in March when the Sabres were in San Jose that former General Manager Tim Murray had just about locked up Antipin. It wasn't until the World Championships that word filtered back to this side of the ocean that Antipin was still cool with Buffalo even with Murray gone, and new GM Jason Botterill sealed the deal in late May.

Antipin, 24, made the opening night lineup as everyone expected, joining the three-headed monster of Marco Scandella and Nathan Beaulieu that was supposed to prop the sagging Sabres defense.

It hasn't totally worked out that way. Scandella missed all of the preseason coming back from hip surgery while Beaulieu missed his second game Tuesday with an upper-body injury. Antipin, meanwhile, played the first three games, struggling mightily in two of them to a minus-4 rating, and then got planted in the press box for all four games of the club's Western road trip.

"You never want to sit out as a player," coach Phil Housley said prior to Tuesday's 1-0 win over Detroit. "There's a lot of pride that goes into that, that you want to be part of the team and contribute. But sometimes when you take a step back, you can realize what you're not doing before you can take a step forward."

The Wraparound: Sabres 1, Red Wings 0

That was the thinking as Antipin sat and watched in San Jose. And Los Angeles. And the first win of the season in Anaheim. As well as the crazy overtime loss in Vegas.

You feel for what Antipin is going through this season. Forgot about being an NHL rookie. Think about being a rookie living in North America.

The native of Kazakhstan is studying English in a variety of ways, including television shows, and is more than willing to talk to us notebook-toting interlopers at his locker. He seems to understand almost any question you ask and is now working to improve expressing himself with his answers.

Sabres' Antipin has a lot to learn, but he's eager to do so

A sample of this corner's chat with Antipin after Tuesday's morning skate:

* What do you think about the chance to be on the power play? "It will be good. Move puck, move it quick."

* What did you think of the scratches? "When I didn't play I watched the game and I had to work more in practice. Lot of practice, moving the puck, shooting."

* Was it disappointing to not play? "I was not surprised. Coach say to me how I must play."

* Were you happy with the way you played Saturday in Boston? "I was skating and making quick moves. My best game. I feel like I'm getting into every game and doing better and better."

Antipin was a member of the KHL All-Star team last season and his team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, advanced to the league finals before losing to SKA St. Petersburg. So in sitting out a relatively decorated player, the Sabres had a delicate balance to deal with.

In general, you don't like sitting a young defenseman four straight games early in his rookie season. Is he ready for the NHL or not? But there's a difference when you're talking someone from the KHL.

Every time there's issues of this ilk, you wonder when the rumors will start about him questioning his deal, both with his particular team and the NHL in general. You heard it in Vegas when the Golden Knights shipped Vadim Shipachyov to Chicago of the AHL, a paper move largely because the expansionites were overloaded on defense.

There was nary a shred of chatter about Antipin, who is only on a one-year deal, bolting anywhere. The bet is he would have been in the lineup in Vegas had the club not posted its first victory of the season two nights earlier in Anaheim. Housley clearly didn't want to mess with a winning lineup. You can't blame him for that.

"Everybody is different. All cases are different," Housley said. "I just thought that if Victor got to look at a game from a different perspective, I think he can see he has more time. There's areas he can jump in and want the puck. I didn't see that a lot in the first games. But now he wants it, he's making good passes ... We hope he continues to do that."

Botterill: Sabres need to find more players like Antipin

Antipin had some hiccups with the puck on the power play Tuesday night but made a key play when it counted, getting the assist on Benoit Pouliot's second-period goal that accounted for all the scoring. Taylor Fedun went cross ice to Antipin, whose shot was stopped by Jimmy Howard, but Pouliot grabbed the rebound and went wraparound on Howard for his second goal in two games.

"It was a good goal," said Antipin, who smiled broadly when congratulated on his first point. "Fedun told me to shoot and it was a good rebound."

"You talk about shot mentality," Housley said. "... He takes a shot from a bad angle, finds the net where Benny jumps on the rebound and puts it in. It's great for him to get his first NHL point."

It was a nice moment for Antipin in a key moment for his team. That's two wins in a row for the Sabres for the first time under Housley and they get full marks for composure, protecting a 1-0 lead for nearly 31 minutes. Lehner was steady under fire in the crease and the defense cleared rebounds and gave him the shot lanes to make every save.

The NHL is still a work in progress for Antipin but you see glimpses of the smooth skating and passing ability. He made a terrific 100-foot breakout pass in the second period from his own zone to Matt Moulson on one sequence and later dented the scoresheet for the first time.

"With Victor he saw the game from a different perspective and when he got back in, he was doing the things we wanted him to do," Housley said. "He was taking charge, he wanted the puck, he was using his feet, defending good with his stick, making that first pass and being part of our attack. He's doing that now."

 

 

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