The last week and a half were chock-full of firsts for No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin.
The Buffalo Sabres’ rookie defenseman experienced his first extended NHL road trip.
He scored his first career goal.
And the Swede enjoyed attending his first NBA game with a handful of teammates, watching LeBron James’ home debut with the Los Angeles Lakers against the Houston Rockets on Saturday night at Staples Center, a game marred by a fight that left three players suspended and the sports world abuzz.
“Oh, that was cool. That really doesn’t happen that much, right? So it was fun,” Dahlin said Tuesday at KeyBank Center after the team’s first practice since returning to Buffalo.
As for how the fracas compared to those in hockey, he was less than impressed.
“It was just one punch, so it wasn’t a really good fight,” Dahlin said. “But I don’t think basketball is like that.”
The Sabres believe the friendships built by sharing exactly these kinds of off-the-ice experiences during the 10-day, five-game Western road trip are critical to establishing a more cohesive group on the ice, especially for a team that had eight new players on the opening day roster. And they’ve even suggested the camaraderie contributed to their 3-2 record during the stretch.
Buffalo won its last two games, which included rallying from a two-goal deficit Sunday against Anaheim. They host the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday.
“It’s never easy to go on a 10-day road trip to start the year, but it was great for us,” Sabres center Jack Eichel said. “I thought for one, we got a lot closer as a group. We had a lot of good times together and I know I enjoyed it. There’s a lot of new faces in this room, and it seems like we got to know each other pretty well and we spent a lot of quality time together.
“I think we’re definitely closer now than we were before we left, so that’s always a positive. You just want to keep getting closer as a group. I think that translates to on the ice. I think you maybe saw that there in the last two games.”
Sabres coach Phil Housley said there was great value in a long road trip early in the season.
“Number one, it gets our guys to be able to bond, especially early,” Housley said. “They’ve become a tighter group because of it. We went through adversity there on the trip and I think the guys rallied around it and got together and had a strong turnaround on the weekend, and I think that’s because of the road trip.
"All you’re doing is thinking about hockey, you’re together a lot, you’re on the bus, you’re going to the rink. A lot of the things you’re doing you’re doing a lot together, so it was great to have a road trip early in our schedule.”
Dahlin was among a group of five Sabres who attended the Lakers game, after Jeff Skinner and Kyle Okposo scored tickets and dragged a few rookies back to the arena after they’d defeated the Kings earlier that day.
Casey Mittelstadt and Tage Thompson were also in the crowd.
Thompson posted a courtside photo of the group on Instagram, which showed he, Dahlin and Mittelstadt wearing James jerseys. Skinner wore a JaVale McGee jersey.
“I was actually going for a LeBron jersey but they were sold out of my size, so he was the closest guy I found that they had in my size,” Skinner said, laughing. “I had to go with that one. I’m still happy with it, though. It’s all right.”
Thompson rolled his eyes about Skinner’s explanation.
“I don’t know where he was looking,” Thompson said, “because I showed up a little after him and I found a LeBron jersey. I don’t think there was too many shortages of them. I think he’s just a really big McGee fan.”
Skinner on fire
Skinner led all Sabres with five goals and two assists on the road trip. He scored four goals over the last two games, including a hat trick against the Kings, after Housley shuffled the lines.
Skinner joined a new top line with Eichel and Jason Pominville. Skinner, who is second on the team in shots with 26, had nine shots in the last two games, including six against Anaheim.
“He’s getting himself to the net and he had a good game there in L.A.," Eichel said. "I thought that got him going. I thought he was just around the puck the whole game. I thought he’s really good at his stick battles. He ends up on the right side of defensemen a lot of times offensively and he’s tough to contain. I thought he played well there and I thought he played well in Anaheim. I thought he’s been shooting, and obviously you can’t score unless you shoot.”
Skinner said he found instant chemistry with Eichel and Pominville.
“He’s been around a long time, so he’s pretty smart,” Skinner said about Pominville. “He knows where to be. He’s easy to read off that way, I think, and he’s got some pretty good skills, too. It’s a pretty good combo, I think, and with Jack down the middle, he was playing well too. When those two guys are playing that way, it’s easy for me, I think.”
Focus on fundamentals
The Sabres focused on fundamentals during practice Tuesday, returning to the ice at KeyBank Center for skills development drills with former Sabres forward Matt Ellis, now on the coaching staff at the Academy of Hockey at HarborCenter.
“It was good to have Matt Ellis and his crew out there today, sort of unlocking the bodies, doing a little skills session,” Housley said. “Coming back from that road trip, it was a good time in our schedule that they could work on some skills.”
Housley said Ellis has the potential to become a head coach in the AHL or NHL.
“Number one, he’s a very smart man,” Housley said. “He really knows the skill element as far as practicing goes. He comes across really well to the guys. He does a lot for us in development camp and pre-training camp, so a lot of the things that they were doing out there, they were accustomed to. But yeah, I think there’s a future.”