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Sabres' Matej Pekar, 'a scrappy guy' loved by teammates, despised by opponents

Dylan Cozens smiles and chuckles when asked about his summer roommate in Buffalo, fellow Sabres prospect Matej Pekar. The two became fast friends while rehabbing their respective injuries, watching the same television shows and developing chemistry on the ice.

Their experiences together showed Cozens why Pekar is loved by teammates. The two needed less than one game together for Cozens to learn why Pekar is also loathed by opponents.

After agitating the New Jersey Devils throughout the two teams' opening Prospects Challenge game Friday in Harborcenter, and even challenging one player to a fight, Pekar squared off against defenseman Michael Vukojevic and dropped his opponent to the ice with a right hook.

"Oh, yeah," Cozens said with a chuckle when asked if he thought Pekar would get into a fight. "It's his first game in a while. I know he wants to make an impression. He's a scrappy guy, a tough guy."

The fight was one of many sequences during the team's first two Prospects Challenge games that showed why the Sabres selected Pekar in the fourth round of the 2018 draft. The pesky 19-year-old forward displayed tenacity and relentlessness throughout the weekend, pressuring opponents in all three zones, laying a body check at every opportunity, scoring twice in Saturday's win against the Boston Bruins and getting into a number of post-whistle scuffles.

His tactics, especially the punch, earned raucous cheers from the standing-room-only crowd and disdain from his opponents. Pekar wouldn't have it any other way.

"I think it's the best feeling ever, to be honest," Pekar said. "I think it's great when I go on the ice and I feel like [players from the other team] are giving me the looks, saying something to my face. I'm like, 'Great, I'm in their head. I can focus on my game now and don't have to worry about them.'"

Pekar, who is listed at 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, is not simply a goon, either. That was apparent with his two goals, the second of which required him to gain leverage on a defenseman while skating toward the net in order to redirect a pass from Lukas Rousek.

Pekar has been a consistent offensive threat in junior hockey, scoring 14 goals in each of the past two seasons, including 36 points in 33 games with Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League in 2018-19.

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However, Pekar's season was cut short when he broke his collarbone during a Jan. 10 game against Sudbury in which he carried the puck into a group of three defenders. His progress was stalled again this summer when a workout injury prevented him from competing in the Sabres' development camp.

Pekar, though, is finally healthy. He scored in his first preseason game with Barrie last week and made an instant impact when being united with Cozens on a line Friday. Though Sabres assistant general manager Randy Sexton acknowledged that Pekar is "probably slightly behind where we hoped he would be," the Sabres are thrilled with what they've seen from Pekar this summer and consider the injuries to be part of the learning process.

"Matej is the kind of player that is a little bit like [Boston Bruins winger Brad] Marchand in the sense that his teammates love him and his opponents can’t stand him," Sexton said. "That’s exactly the way he wants it. It’s not lost on him the way people feel, one way or the other. I don’t think it fazes him. ... He embodies everything we want in a Sabre, including some of those throwback tendencies that are hard to find these days.

"If you think about that, his passion for the game, his intensity, his competitiveness, to me has sneaky skill. He understands how to score and that his job is to get to the front of the net. He does a lot of the little things that help generate offense for himself and his teammates."

Pekar had been waiting almost eight months to hit someone on the ice. He was best known among Sabres fans for his performance at development camp last summer, when he agitated Casey Mittelstadt and Rasmus Dahlin.

The crowd erupted Friday night following Pekar's fight and again Saturday when he was involved in a few scuffles, the result of him skating hard into the opponent's crease or finishing a check.

Pekar isn't quite sure why he adopted the style of play. It's become second nature for him to skate into a crowd of opponents, lifting each player's stick while trying to fight for a loose puck, or finishing a check after a defenseman passes the puck up the ice.

Despite missing development camp, Pekar told reporters in June his hope was to make the Sabres' roster out of training camp. He faces long odds accomplishing that goal, no matter how well he performs this month. Pekar could help his case by avoiding the penalty box – he was penalized twice Saturday – and showing he can make a consistent impact on offense.

It's likely, though, that Pekar will go back to Barrie for another season. He would need to beat out several veterans in Sabres training camp, most of whom have a wealth of NHL experience. Pekar's immediate focus is finishing the Prospects Challenge with a strong performance Monday against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

And regardless of what happens during training camp, Pekar does not plan to stop antagonizing opponents.

“I think I was born like that, I don’t think I can drop that game right now," Pekar said. "I’m just going to do everything I can to get the team a W. Yeah, I’m just trying to play my best hockey.”

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