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Mike Harrington: Dahlin nervous? Not for long

Rasmus Dahlin dealt with every interview and every request for his time for weeks heading into the NHL Draft. He was pulled in multiple directions and never cracked.

A couple of days after taking the podium in Dallas, he was a standout at Sabres development camp. He had HarborCenter buzzing 10 days ago with two goals in the opening game of the Prospects Challenge.

Tuesday night was another step in his, ahem, process (let's hope this one goes better). It was his first preseason game. And the 18-year-old admitted he's human. He said he was nervous for his initial NHL appearance, albeit against mostly a minor-league opponent, in KeyBank Center.

"It was awesome," Dahlin said after the Sabres' 3-2 win over an unreasonable facsimile of the Pittsburgh Penguins. "I was nervous before the game. When you make your first pass, then it's gone and you feel comfortable out there skating."

Nervous? Sure didn't look like it.

"These young studs that come into the league, they think the game differently, they see the game a little slower almost," marveled defense partner Jake McCabe. "The play slows down for them, and he's no different in that aspect. Very poised with the puck, not a lot of panic in the game and that's something you can't teach."

Dahlin had a couple jumpy moments in the first period. Former Sabres center Derek Grant stripped him inside the Buffalo line to create a loose puck that goalie Carter Hutton had to bail his team out from.

But he started moving the puck up the ice on several chances as well. On one play, he did the ol' between-the-legs trick on poor Dominik Simon, à la the World Juniors play against Russia we saw the replay of a hundred times around the draft.

"I can do them when the situations come up," Dahlin said of the fancy moves. "I don't try to make them every time. It comes when it comes."

Said center Casey Mittelstadt: "I've been seeing him for a while now. He just makes everything look so effortless."

Dahlin had three shots on goal in the first period while playing 7 minutes, 52 seconds. By the time the night was over, he had been on the ice for 21:32, including 4:04 of power-play time and 1:46 on the penalty kill. He had four shots on goal and a team-high six attempts.

"He was calm but I thought he needed a little bit more urgency in the first period just getting the pucks up ice," said coach Phil Housley. "He got stripped a couple times but that's just a young hockey player getting adjusted.

"Certainly he created a lot of stuff for us finding open people. The one thing I really like is that every shot he takes it seems to hit the net. His development is where it needs to be right now."

Dahlin's impact is going to be team-wide. Other defensemen will follow his lead. Rasmus Ristolainen looked like a beast Tuesday. The defense has gotten goals from Nathan Beaulieu and McCabe in the first two games; it didn't score at all last season until the first week of December.

Dahlin does the spectacular things as well as the nuanced ones. One example came early in the first period, when he took a quick stride backward to give McCabe a lane for a defense-to-defense pass near the goal line.

McCabe was close to hemmed in and suddenly Dahlin had the puck and it was out of the zone. Vladimir Sobotka had a good scoring chance at the other end and it started with a tiny move by Dahlin.

"It's the confidence and a little bit of swagger," McCabe said. "I could tell he was a little bit nervous at the start but I was nervous, too. It's our first game of the year. It's fun. It's more excitement jitters than nerves."

By the way, it was a good first test for McCabe as well. After not getting in a game since January due to shoulder surgery, Dahlin's partner got plenty of contact to test things out. He gave, destroying Jake Guentzel against the boards in the third period, and he also received by getting dumped hard in the crease just after scoring Buffalo's second goal.

(What in the world was McCabe doing at the edge of the paint? This is how Housley wants his blueliners to play. You think Dahlin might have some influence here?)

For 55 minutes, there was plenty to like in this game other than Dahlin. Lawrence Pilut looks like a stealth, under-the-radar pickup on defense who will be a standout in Rochester and should help the Sabres in due time. C.J. Smith used his speed and was active around the goal. Just as Patrik Berglund showed Monday night in Columbus, Sobotka should give the Sabres some NHL-level return for Ryan O'Reilly.

The penalty killers are 7 for 7, and Jack Eichel was flat-out filthy while deking Casey DeSmith for his short-handed goal Tuesday. There's been a power-play goal in each game and plenty of zone time with the man advantage.

That said, you can't make too many blanket statements yet. By the numbers, Buffalo has outscored its opponents, 7-3, and opened preseason 2-0 for the first time since 2013. For whatever that's worth.

In wins over Columbus and Pittsburgh, the Sabres have realistically played Cleveland and Wilkes-Barre. As the preseason goes on and you start getting NHL roster vs. NHL roster matchups, you get a much better gauge on things.

Dahlin should get three or four more chances in the preseason. He'll probably start those games a little calmer than he was Tuesday. When that's the case, look out.

The wraparound: Sabres earn second straight preseason win

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