The Buffalo Sabres are six practices over three days into the Ralph Krueger era and now they quickly transition to a different portion of their preseason with one main question: How does all this work translate to real game action?
The answers will come fast and furious this week with four games in the next six nights. The Sabres open Monday at Pegula Ice Arena on the campus of Penn State with a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, followed by a trip to Columbus to meet the Blue Jackets on Tuesday.
After an off day Wednesday and two more practices on Thursday comes back-to-back games against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The teams meet Friday night in Scotiabank Arena and stage Buffalo's exhibition home opener Saturday night in KeyBank Center.
"We want to see the games settle the competition that we have but we have time," Krueger said after Sunday's two practices in the arena. "We're going to use these four games well to assess the group. We only have really one full practice day (this week) but I think we've done enough practicing and guys are ready to play."
"Everybody is real excited," said C.J. Smith, who is battling for a spot on the wing. "He's simplified the game a lot to have guys trust their instincts and their hockey knowledge. It's giving guys confidence and letting them play with the puck instead of being forced to feel like you have to make a play in a certain system or have to be in a certain spot. Most guys in that locker room really enjoy playing to their instincts."
Making any sort of judgments based on drills is a risky proposition, but winger Victor Olofsson is one player who has looked particularly sharp in practices, with one example the way he froze goalie Linus Ullmark with a nifty leg fake before scoring in a shootout drill Sunday.
Olofsson collected 30 goals last year in Rochester and scored his first two NHL goals in a six-game run with the Sabres at the end of the season. He's a good bet to make the club and has been skating with veteran Marcus Johansson and center Rasmus Asplund.
"That's my goal, to make this team out of camp," said Olofsson. "It's the expectations I have on myself. That's my goal and what I've been working for all summer. I'm just really excited to be here and super excited for these couple games.
"I felt like I was ready my last year, too, when I got here from Sweden. I felt like I had a chance to make the team right away and it didn't happen, but I think I grew over the first couple months last year and really developed my entire game."
It appears that Smith, a 28-goal scorer for the Amerks last year, has been given a huge show-us opportunity in camp by being put on a line with Casey Mittelstadt at center and Sam Reinhart on the right wing.
"To me, it shows they saw what I did last year and are willing to give me a big chance so I'm excited about that," Smith said. "I think after last year, I did earn an opportunity to play with guys like that, so I'm excited to go forward.
"With the puck, we believe we have a lot of skill," Krueger said. "There's a strength in possession for us and how we manage that. We've given them some tools. Above all, we want to begin with a defensive structure that limits our D-zone time and offensively, we'd like to be really strong at managing the puck and retaining possession."
Sabres-Pens lineup news
The Sabres announced their lineup for Monday's game on Sunday night and first-round draft pick Dylan Cozens is among the forwards listed. He's joined by Jack Eichel, Jimmy Vesey, Johan Larsson, Curtis Lazar, Zemgus Girgensons, Conor Sheary, Andrew Oglevie, Jeff Skinner, Evan Rodrigues, Tage Thompson and Remi Elie.
The defense includes newcomers Colin Miller, Henri Jokiharju and John Gilmour along with Rasmus Dahlin, Marco Scandella, Casey Nelson and Brandon Hickey. Carter Hutton and Jonas Johansson will split the game in goal, leaving Linus Ullmark and newly signed Andrew Hammond to play in Tuesday's game.
The Sabres will play a Pittsburgh lineup featuring almost exclusively AHL players. Among the missing Monday will be Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel, Patric Hornqvist, Brian Dumoulin and goalie Matt Murray. Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry will man the nets.
Monday's game will mark the Sabres' third visit to play in the Penn State arena that was funded as part of a $102 million donation from Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula. The Sabres played the Penguins there in 2017 and opened their exhibition slate there in 2016 against Minnesota.
On the air
The games Monday and Tuesday will be streamed on Sabres.com within the team's broadcast viewing area. The games against Toronto will be shown on MSG, using the Leafs' Sportsnet broadcast. All games during the preseason will be broadcast on WGR Radio.