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Rasmus Asplund delivers 'outstanding' performance in emotional Sabres debut

Rasmus Asplund emerged from the tunnel adjacent to the Buffalo Sabres' bench and took one lap by himself before he was joined by his teammates for pregame warmup Saturday night.

Meanwhile, approximately 3,825 miles away in Filipstad, Sweden, Asplund's parents, Stefan and Ramona, stayed awake for the 1:25 a.m. puck drop to watch their son make his National Hockey League debut. This was the realization of a dream that once seemed unattainable.

Fourteen months earlier, Asplund had yet to play a professional game in North America. Now, he's an important player in the Sabres' long-term plans, and he showed he belongs during their 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators inside KeyBank Center.

The emotions that consumed Asplund during that first lap paled in comparison to what he felt during the pregame ceremony on Hockey Fights Cancer night, when 50 cancer patients and survivors were welcomed on the ice for the ceremonial puck drop. Asplund's grandparents, Sarah and Lars, lost their battles with the disease.

Lars passed one day after Asplund returned from Buffalo in 2016, when he was drafted 33rd overall by the Sabres. During their final visit together, Rasmus was able to show his grandfather the jersey in which he hoped to wear in the NHL. The family has since waited for him to receive this opportunity.

"They’re always in the back of my mind, especially days like this," Asplund said of his grandparents. "Even looking at the people that were on the ice before the game there, I could see the pain my grandparents went through. I know how much pain it causes families."

Asplund, a 21-year-old center, was recalled from Rochester  prior to practice Friday but was unsure when or if he would debut with the Sabres. Upon learning Saturday morning he would replace injured center Johan Larsson in Buffalo's lineup, Asplund delivered the news to his parents during an hour-long phone call.

The three spoke about Rasmus skating on the lake in the family's backyard, all the car rides to the local rink and how they never thought he would make the NHL. He intended to call his parents following his postgame interview Saturday night to see if they were still awake and hoped to remain on the Sabres' roster long enough to fly them to Buffalo for the game Tuesday night against the Minnesota Wild in KeyBank Center.

Asplund's performance Saturday night showed his stay may not be brief after all. He won 5 of 9 faceoffs during 12:13 of ice time, recorded two shots on goal and generated scoring opportunities for his linemates. Asplund made an immediate impact during his first shift, leveling Senators defenseman Erik Brannstrom with a body check.

Sabres coach Ralph Krueger and assistant Chris Taylor congratulated Asplund for a faceoff win during a successful first-period penalty kill.  The rookie also nearly scored a shorthanded goal on a breakaway during the second period, but his attempt was stopped by goalie Craig Anderson.

"Outstanding," Krueger said of Asplund's performance. "He was moving his feet all the time, both sides of the puck, on the penalty kill. He was creating offensive chances. He played without fear and showed a lot of courage. It’s what we saw in training camp and that was an exciting first game for anybody to come into the NHL and do what he did. To end it with a win, I’m sure he’ll never forget this night."

His entire family won't. Asplund smiled when recalling the day he was drafted in the second round by the Sabres. The NHL seemed to be within reach, yet he quickly realized how much work was needed to attain that goal. He played two more seasons for Farjestad BK of the Swedish Hockey League before joining Rochester.

Former Sabres General Manager Tim Murray was criticized for trading defenseman Mark Pysyk to Florida for defenseman Dmitry Kulikov in June 2016, however, the purpose of the transaction was to move up five spots in the second round to select Asplund 33rd overall.

Though Kulikov struggled during his only season in Buffalo, Asplund has developed into a two-way center who pushed for a roster spot with the Sabres this past training camp. He showed gradual improvement last season in Rochester, finishing with 10 goals among 41 points in 75 regular-season games.

"The draft is a big thing, obviously, and when you get drafted you think it’s pretty close, but then you realize it’s far out to make the NHL," Asplund said. "When I signed my contract I knew I had three years to become a regular NHL player and this is just a step towards that."

Asplund was outstanding in his first camp under Krueger, showing the versatility to play the wing and contribute on the penalty kill or power play. Though Asplund had only one goal among eight points in 13 games with the Amerks to start the season, he continued to show maturity offensively and defensively.

Though Asplund does not possess Casey Mittelstadt's skill or Dylan Cozens' elite speed, he has proven to be a polished forward who could be a solution to the Sabres' lack of depth at center. His backhanded centering pass almost resulted in a goal for Jimmy Vesey in the third period, and Krueger trusted Asplund enough to use the rookie with 1:14 remaining in regulation.

"I felt good," Asplund said. "I tried to keep it pretty simple in the beginning and work my way into the game. I started to feel better, better and better. I’m happy with my game."

Krueger benefited from having continuity in his forward lines and defense pairings during the Sabres' remarkable start to this season. However, recent injuries to Larsson, Marcus Johansson and Vladimir Sobotka have tested the team's depth. Additionally, Kyle Okposo, who played on a line with Asplund, did not return to the game Saturday after suffering an injury during the second period.

Asplund and Curtis Lazar, who scored his first game with the Sabres on Thursday, have provided immediate spark to a lineup that was struggling to produce offensively during its six-game losing streak.

"A lot of emotions going through your body," Asplund said. "It’s something you dream of a long, long time. It’s finally happening."

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