Some of the loudest cheers from the sellout crowd at KeyBank Center for the Buffalo Sabres’ season opener against the Boston Bruins on Thursday night came during pregame introductions, with the roar for rookie defenseman Rasmus Dahlin superseded only by those for newly-named captain Jack Eichel.
The honeymoon was short-lived.
By the end of the Sabres’ increasingly sloppy first period, Dahlin was failing to hold the offensive zone, the puck dribbling over his stick and into the neutral zone, the players staring at a two-goal deficit and leaving the ice to boos.
Dahlin, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, spent much of his first regular season game in the National Hockey League looking not like the transcendent talent that had dominated in his native Sweden, but like exactly what he is. An 18-year-old kid, a world away from home, trying to hang with the best players on the planet.
"It was my first game, so I didn’t really expect as much" from myself, Dahlin said. "It went OK. Of course, we lost, so I can’t say I made a good game. It was what it was."
The Bruins, embarrassed the previous night against the reigning champion Washington Capitals, had a far easier time dispatching the Sabres, 4-0, on Thursday night in Buffalo’s season opener.
There had been an uptick in optimism throughout the region as the season approached for several reasons, Dahlin chief among them, as Buffalo significantly revamped its roster after finishing as the worst team in the league last season. (And in three of the last five seasons.) But it was more of the same for the struggling Sabres, who have won just one of their last 10 home openers.
Dahlin played on his natural right side, joining Jake McCabe on the Sabres’ second defensive pairing, behind Marco Scandella and Rasmus Ristolainen and with his siblings, parents, grandparents and Swedish media in attendance.
Dahlin finished minus-1 while playing 22:37, second-most on the team behind Ristolainen. He blocked a shot, delivered two hits and had one giveaway. The lowlight came in the second period, when Boston center David Krejčí threaded a cross-ice pass through the rookie’s legs in front of the goal and David Pastrnak buried the puck past Carter Hutton for a 3-0 lead.
"He’s got a lot of weight on his shoulders," Hutton said about Dahlin, "and I think he handles it well, and I think the guys do a good job of protecting him. … Everybody makes mistakes. We’re human and it’s a fast game out there. The game is based on mistakes. But he’s a heck of a talent and we’re lucky to have him."
The period could have been worse.
At one point, Dahlin was so concerned about Krejčí that he had lost track of the puck, which was loose on the ice directly behind him and finally covered by the diving goalie.
Hutton later stopped Sean Kuraly on a breakaway after McCabe had essentially handed him the puck in the offensive end.
"They came out very hard. They’re skilled players," Dahlin said. "We need to work harder and be more effective in their zone. Just to step up."
Dahlin didn’t do much on offense. But few of the Sabres did. He managed one missed shot on goal and attempted a pass to Nathan Beaulieu that was broken up.
Dahlin knows he has much to figure out. Before the game, he said he needs to continue to adjust to smaller North American rinks and to the systems NHL teams play. He also must learn opponents’ players, which promises to be a season-long endeavor.
This was just the first step.
"I thought he got good as the game went along," Sabres coach Phil Housley said. "A young man on a big stage, just trying to get accustomed to the North American game and a sold-out crowd. But I thought his game got better as the game went on and he got more comfortable."
Dahlin’s first career shift began with a defensive zone draw with 19:06 remaining in the first period. It was highlighted by a congratulatory message on the video board for Dahlin appearing in his first NHL game and the rookie standing up Boston forward Jake DeBrusk as he skated into the zone.
Dahlin acknowledged he was nervous, but said he calmed down after a few shifts in the first period, which ended with the Sabres in a 2-0 hole.
Zdeno Chára and Ryan Donato each scored in the opening period, each wide open in the offensive zone, the first just 6:33 into the game and the second on the power play.
Dahlin wasn’t on the ice for either.
He also wasn’t on the ice for the Sabres’ first power play shift in the second period.
But he helped stop a short-handed 2-on-1 later in the penalty kill, remaining tight until Patrik Berglund was able to break up the attempted pass.
Dahlin committed a turnover inside the final minute of the second period, which ended with another cascade of boos from the crowd.
He also failed to hold the puck in the offensive end after the Sabres pulled the goalie with about five minutes to play. The mistake did not prove costly. But minutes later, Patrice Bergeron finished the rout with an empty-netter.
By that point much of the crowd had gone home.