UNIVERSITY PARK, PA. — When the emotional rollercoaster finally ended Monday night, Ralph Krueger stood in front of his players inside the Buffalo Sabres' dressing room and expressed a blend of excitement and relief.
"Said to the guys after the game, ‘It was good to get that one down,'" Krueger told reporters, his voice hoarse following his first game as an NHL coach since April 27, 2013.
Krueger's return did not go exactly as planned. Despite having only three days to prepare, the Sabres made Krueger's vision a reality by using a fast-and-furious style of play to build a three-goal lead through two periods.
However, the Sabres relinquished the lead and needed Jack Eichel's overtime goal with eight seconds remaining to win Krueger's debut, 5-4, against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Penn State's Pegula Ice Arena. The game provided some semblance of how Krueger wants the Sabres to play in 2019-20 and will give his coaching staff some lessons to teach to players.
Krueger wasn't the only person in the Sabres' dressing room getting acclimated, either. Dylan Cozens, the 18-year-old center drafted seventh overall in June, made his exhibition debut against NHL competition. Though Cozens did not record a point, he also expressed confidence in his ability to learn from his introduction.
“Obviously it’s very fast and guys are so strong and just getting used to the quickness of it," he said afterward. "The little time and space that you have, I think you have to adjust and I’m going to adjust quickly to it. But it was a lot of fun and we got the win, so that was exciting.”
Cozens had only two shots on goal against a Penguins lineup filled with prospects, many of whom played against the Sabres' top draft pick at the Prospects Challenge in Buffalo earlier this month. He took advantage of an opportunity to showcase the skills that made him one of the top players in the most recent NHL draft.
Cozens tipped two pucks near the Penguins net on the power play, the first of which almost snuck past goalie Casey DeSmith. Cozens also broke his stick on a shot attempt that went wide of the net in the third period. But his most impressive work did not show up on a stat sheet. He was fearless driving to the net and used his speed to get behind defenders while showing chemistry with his linemates, Tage Thompson and Remi Elie.
Cozens did not show any sort of hesitation against the Penguins, despite he and his teammates having only three practices to learn Krueger's offensive and defensive systems.
"I think emotionally there are so many things for him to step into this space for the first time," Krueger said of Cozens. "He managed it really well. He was calm on the bench. He’s an energetic kid trying to learn every shift. It was an exciting coaching opportunity for me to stand behind somebody with that much skill in their very first game at this level. He’s got some exciting years ahead of him."
Cozens played on the Sabres' second power-play unit and was trusted to take offensive-zone faceoffs in important situations. He also helped them out-shoot the Penguins, 48-17.
Cozens didn't commit any egregious mistakes, and he showed poise with the puck, even when facing NHL players Bryan Rust, Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon. Cozen was among the more impressive players during the Sabres' Prospects Challenge in LECOM Harborcenter earlier this month and scored during his first game in Buffalo but didn't have the same offensive impact against better competition Monday.
Cozens, who underwent surgery on his left thumb in July, played well enough at the Prospects Challenge to raise questions, at least externally, whether he could earn a roster spot in training camp. Now, there's reason to wonder if Monday will be Cozens' only game in a Sabres uniform in 2019-20. Krueger will soon have to trim his roster, and Cozens may not be able to delay his return to Lethbridge of the Western Hockey League.
"So far great," Thompson said of Cozens. "He has a lot of confidence. I think you see it with his play out there. He’s really fast and dynamic with the puck. I don’t think there are too many nerves with him right now."
Third-period meltdown: The Penguins scored three goals in less than eight minutes to tie the score with 11:14 left in regulation. Neither Krueger nor his players expressed concern following the game, but the coach acknowledged there will be many lessons to teach.
"When you looked at the opportunities we had versus what they had in the first 40 minutes, we were extremely pleased with the work ethic," Krueger said. "There’s a lot of information that went into their heads here the last four days and there’s no way they’re going to execute that perfectly, but we saw semblances of what we want to see and we still have time until it really matters. That’s the good thing. ... We lost the way [we want to play], especially with the puck. We got complicated and let them back into the game."
Early mistakes: Rasmus Dahlin showed some rust with the puck and two of his turnovers resulted in Penguins goals. First, his breakout pass was intercepted by Penguins winger Nathan Legare and resulted in Andrew Agozzino scoring the first goal 4:34 into the game. Dahlin also committed a turnover on Adam Johnson's third-period goal, which cut the Sabres' lead to one with 13:36 remaining.
Serious speed: John Gilmour is making a strong first impression with the Sabres. Gilmour, a 26-year-old defenseman who signed a one-way contract with Buffalo on July 1, scored the team's first goal of the preseason at 5:44 into the first period.
Gilmour collected a pass from Jimmy Vesey, used his elite speed to create separation from a Penguins defender and fired a shot over DeSmith's glove to tie the score, 1-1. Gilmour scored 20 goals among 54 points last season for Hartford of the American Hockey League.
Tape-to-tape: Though Dahlin struggled in his own end, he also made a few dynamic plays. The 19-year-old held the puck near the red line, waited for Conor Sheary to skate toward the opposing blue line and unleashed a perfect pass to spring the winger for a breakaway.
Sheary, who won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins, scored with a wrist shot over DeSmith's glove at 18:47 for a 2-1 lead.
Immediate impact: Henri Jokiharju also is making a strong case to stick with the Sabres. Jokiharju, a 20-year-old defenseman acquired from Chicago for Alexander Nylander, scored with a shot from the left circle at 11:40 into the second period. Perhaps Jokiharju's most impressive play came moments earlier when he stripped a Penguins of the puck to create a 2-on-1 rush for Sheary and Evan Rodrigues.
Standing tall: Thompson was among the Sabres' best players Monday night. The 21-year-old winger stick-handled around defenders in the neutral zone to help his line enter the offensive zone and scored the type of goal that shows how effective he can be when using his 6-foot-5 frame around the net.
Thompson screened goalie Tristan Jarry on a second-period power play and used his reach to backhand a rebound off Dahlin's shot into the back of the net for a 4-1 lead at 15:58.
"Anywhere on the power play is awesome, so I can’t complain," Thompson, who skated on the Sabres' top power play, said of being in front of the net. "I feel comfortable there. I’ve played it in the past. Feel comfortable down low, behind the goal line and in front of the net. Popping in and out. It’s a good spot for me."
Quiet night: Carter Hutton started in goal for the Sabres and stopped two of three shots before he was replaced by Jonas Johansson with 10:38 remaining in the second period. DeSmith, who was replaced by Jarry, stopped 23 of 25 shots.
Veterans sit: Neither defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen nor winger Marcus Johansson will play in the Sabres' first two preseason games, Krueger told reporters Monday. Defenseman Brandon Hickey, who likely will spend this season in Rochester, was a healthy scratch against the Penguins.
Next: The other half of the Sabres' roster — including Sam Reinhart, Casey Mittelstadt, Brandon Montour and Linus Ullmark — will travel to Columbus to face the Blue Jackets on Tuesday at 7 p.m.