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Mike Harrington: Nylander makes quite an opening statement

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Patrik Berglund has played 694 games in the NHL, all with the St. Louis Blues. He's a four-time, 20-goal scorer in this league and has spent the last six years on the same team as superstar Vladimir Tarasenko.

So Berglund knows skill. At age 30, it undoubtedly takes a lot to impress him.

Alexander Nylander wowed him here Monday night.

It was Nylander who set up Berglund for the game's first goal 22 seconds into the second period and the Sabres never trailed in a 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets that opened their preseason.

The first of Nylander's two assists in the game came on a sensational look from down low. Patiently waiting with the puck in the left corner, Nylander kept his head up and fired a diagonal pass right on Berglund's stick. The veteran one-timed it and Columbus goalie Brad Thiessen had no chance.

"If I was Nylander, I would never try to pass that puck – because I could never make that play," a smiling Berglund said after the win in Nationwide Arena. "It was a great play by him. I came there back door, charged as hard as I could, hit the goal with it and it went in."

"I heard him yell for it and I looked to see if there was somebody in the slot," Nylander said. "Looked again and he was wide open."

Berglund centered Nylander and fellow St. Louis alum Tage Thompson. They were the game's signature trio, with both wingers getting a pair of assists.

Nylander made a similar pass less than six minutes later, finding Nathan Beaulieu out top on a 4-on-3 for another one-timer that gave the Sabres a 2-0 lead. No longer dogged by the groin injury that ruined last season for him, the 20-year-old kept his momentum that he built while scoring three goals in the Prospects Challenge.

There is opportunity on this club. Both because of the lack of depth, especially on the bottom-six forward group, and because of the continuing contract stalemate with Sam Reinhart.

"I feel like I could have pushed more to make a spot last year," Nylander said. "I never got the chance because I was injured. This feels normal. This is the way I should play."

Reinhart would seemingly be the top line right winger, playing with Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner. But he's not here, and players like Nylander and Thompson have a chance to show their wares in his absence.

Nylander has not engendered much positive vibe thus far in his career. His first two years in Rochester produced just 18 goals in 116 games. In the wake of the injury and his no-show in last season's AHL playoff series sweep against Syracuse, alarm bells were everywhere when the Sabres held him out of development camp in June.

They were steadfast that move was about making sure he was ready come September. Suffice to say, there were plenty of guffaws around HarborCenter at that party line. Not much laughing going on now.

The Wraparound: Buffalo Sabres 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 1

Nylander showed up at the Prospects Challenge looking stronger and smoother on the ice after an improved summer regimen that included a visit to Sweden from Sabres development coach Dennis Miller.

He should have stood out in those games and he did. Things got a tad more real Monday – although the likes of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski were not on the Columbus defense – and Nylander stood out again.

"I've really liked his development through this camp," said coach Phil Housley. "He's done the right things. He's working hard, he's getting his nose dirty, he's on the forecheck and he's making plays."

"I've always known he's skilled with a good shot and is a fast forward," Berglund said of his fellow Swede. "What I saw today and in practice, he's been taking big steps of playing the game the right way, paying attention to the small details in the game."

What impressed Berglund on the goal was not just Nylander's pass. It was how he chipped the puck into the Columbus zone in a good spot and then was part of the forecheck to get it back.

"That's how you play the game now," Berglund said. "It's a grinding game and he sure did do that today."

"I like to create offense and try to make simple plays out there," Nylander said. "Sometimes you have to hold the puck longer than other times, and I wanted to create space by moving my feet and finding the open player."

Confidence key for Tage Thompson to stay in Sabres lineup

Nylander's struggles after being taken at No. 8 overall in 2016 have been such a talking point that it's easy to overlook his age. Pushing first-round picks perhaps when they're not ready is now a thing in the NHL, largely because of the hype the internet has given to prospects in the last decade or so that rarely used to exist.

Labels are a problem for first-round picks, especially top-10 guys who don't jump right into the NHL.

"It's taking time. He's a good dude," said goalie Linus Ullmark, a teammate of Nylander's the last two years in Rochester. "He just has to get everything together, play hard and play smart. ... I don't really care if he has been drafted first overall, 30th overall, seventh round, whatever. He's still the same guy. I don't really care about labels. It's about human beings."

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