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Casey Fitzgerald has memorable and eventful debut on Sabres' defense

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Sabres Penguins Hockey

Buffalo Sabres defenseman Casey Fitzgerald, right, battles for position with Pittsburgh Penguins winger Sam Laffety during the third period Friday, Dec. 17, 2021, in Pittsburgh.

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PITTSBURGH – We've seen Casey Fitzgerald around plenty since 2016, but you never really knew if you'd ever see him in the NHL. 

He was a third-round draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres, now more than 5½ years ago. He went on to finish a four-year career at Boston College before turning pro and has appeared in parts of four consecutive seasons in Rochester. He's been a regular at summer development camps and Prospect Challenge games in LECOM Harborcenter. Has gotten some looks in exhibition games, too.

But he's always been on the periphery to prospect watchers, and not an immediate thought when a callup is needed. That all changed Friday night.

There was the 24-year-old rookie taking a solo lap before warmups in PPG Paints Arena. And earning a spot in the Sabres' starting lineup – with Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby the opposing center for the first shift of Fitzgerald's NHL debut.

Talk about flashbacks of a hockey life flooding the mind.

"I was trying to try my best not to crack a smile there but that was surreal," Fitzgerald acknowledged after a strong showing in Friday's 3-2 overtime defeat. "I grew up watching the Pens. They were my team growing up, so that was cool. Just having the opportunity to be up here is awesome and I'm so grateful for that."

The 5-foot-11 Fitzgerald played 16 minutes, 42 seconds in the game while paired with Jacob Bryson, collecting an assist on a Zemgus Girgensons goal for his first NHL point. He had five hits, the most among Buffalo defensemen, two shots on goal and two blocked shots. He even threw down for his first NHL fight, battling Sam Lafferty in a spirited affair after the Pens' forward dropped Vinnie Hinostroza with a hard bodycheck.

In a game in which Buffalo was outshot, 48-21, the shot count was even (7-7) when Fitzgerald was on the ice. The Sabres need right-shot defensemen and Fitzgerald fills the bill. He had good control of the puck in his own end and didn't make the kind of nervous mistakes you might expect from a rookie.

"A lot of adrenaline the first period. I think I was a little bit jumpy," Fitzgerald said. "But I think after a few shifts, got to settle in there and just play my game. It was a packed house so that was cool. You're looking around at first but to get a couple shifts under my belt there and really sink into the game was fun."

The performance was no surprise to Sabres coach Don Granato, who coached Fitzgerald for two years with the U.S. National Development Team Program when his teammates on defense included Boston's Charlie McAvoy, Columbus' Zach Werenski and Calgary's Noah Hanifin.

The starting lineup call was a massive statement on the road by Granato in support of his player, but the coach said it wasn't a big deal to him.

"I don't think that fazes him and it doesn't faze me.  I have complete confidence in him," Granato said. "Having spent a couple of years with him, he knows everything that I expect as a coach and the details of the position and things, so I knew that side of it would be effortless and obviously he knew my belief in him.

"It was fun to coach a guy in his first NHL game that you spent a couple years with ... Very, very special for me as well."

Fitzgerald said he didn't like the Lafferty hit on Hinostroza because it was a leg-on-leg play and that's why he engaged the Pittsburgh forward.

"Vinnie has got a big motor, he's always going and I know he'd do the same for me just like anyone else on this team," he said. "That's one thing in Rochester that they kind of instilled in us: You want to stick up for your teammates."

Fitzgerald's father, Tom, is the general manager of the New Jersey Devils and was in the stands Friday with his wife, Kerry. Tom Fitzgerald won a Stanley Cup in 2009 as Pittsburgh assistant GM.

Television cameras caught a classic reaction from Fitzgerald's parents after the bout. Tom Fitzgerald, a tough customer of his own during his 1,100-game NHL career, was yelling and clapping wildly while his wife was clearly taking the mother's pose of hoping her son didn't get hurt.

"I hope my mother didn't get to see too much," Fitzgerald said with a laugh. "But it was great having having them both out here. My dad, obviously, is pretty busy but he wouldn't have missed this for the world and got on a quick flight out here. Just awesome. So grateful for them for just everything they've done for me my whole life leading me up to this."

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