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Mike Harrington: Sabres got the Power, so they're going for the gusto on 'D' right away vs. Leafs

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ETOBICOKE, Ont. – The Buffalo Sabres got us all good.

That assumption they fostered about bringing Owen Power along slowly, letting him get his feet wet in the NHL while probably playing third-pair minutes alongside a veteran journeyman like Mark Pysyk or Colin Miller?

Not happening.

The first Power practice here Monday in the Ford Performance Center showed that Don Granato is willing to press the delete key when the situation calls for it.

The Sabres' coach insisted change in his defense pairs to accommodate Power has been on his mind for weeks. And maybe it has. But a pair of blown two-goal leads on this road trip followed by Sunday's 5-0 pounding in Tampa Bay made it easy to shuffle the deck entirely in advance of Tuesday's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Scotiabank Arena.

Zee and Trish Power said their son is excited to play his first game with the Buffalo Sabres.

So the answer to the longtime question of who would be Power's initial partner? Henri Jokiharju. Not a possibility this corner ever considered.

Jokiharju and Rasmus Dahlin have been the fixture top pair for months this season and for much of last year. But in Sunday's game, Casey Fitzgerald couldn't get out of his own way and Mattias Samuelsson was minus-4. There's real fear that Auston Matthews & Co. had enough of the Sabres during Buffalo's two wins last month and could induce similar damage as the Lightning.

So in practice Monday, Dahlin shifted to the right side with Samulesson while Power stayed on his natural left slot with Jokiharju. Why not? Power has already played in the World Juniors, Olympics and Frozen Four this year. His size, skill and skating ability absolutely could qualify him as one of the Sabres' top four defensemen right now.

"(Sunday's loss) wasn't really indicative of our team and how we were playing and we wanted to turn the page quick this morning," Granato said after practice Monday in a locker room packed with reporters from both cities. "But we didn't make any decisions based on (the Tampa debacle). We just weren't ourselves. So we don't want to overreact to last night."

Dahlin has played his best hockey with Jokiharju, a positionally sound player who is going to allow his partner to use their athleticism all over the ice. Granato says Jokiharju is a calming presence on the blueline. Makes sense that Power will have the same kind of backup.

"He takes a lot of responsibility," Dahlin said of Jokiharju. "He's putting pressure on the forwards a lot. And he's aggressive. It's easy to play with him. And I'm sure that he will do good."

It's a good partner for Power, who had seen Jokiharju play as a first-round pick for the Chicago Blackhawks while Power was a 17-year-old with the USHL's Chicago Steel.

"I didn't expect actually anything," Jokiharju said when asked if he knew the assignment was coming. "Just go with the flow."

Jokiharju said he was impressed at Power's poise on the day before his NHL debut. When he made his own for the Hawks in 2018, Jokiharju said he was very nervous.

"He didn't seem nervous at all actually out there," Jokiharju said of Power. "So it kind of feels like he's been around already."

Granato had Power by the white board before practice going over the drills and Jokiharju was doing a lot of talking to Power on the bench.

"You don't want to get into his head too much," Jokiharju said. "There's a reason why he's the first overall pick. I'm just trying to help him and he's got to do his own stuff. And I think that's why he's here, right? My job is pretty easy."

"It's going to be an adjustment," Power admitted. "So to have him just able to talk on the ice and off the ice, I think it's going to be huge for me to kind of help in that adjustment."

Buffalo Sabres 2021 No. 1 draft pick Owen Power leads stretches while his teammates cheer him on during practice at LECOM HarborCenter on Monday, April 11, 2022.

The Sabres' players saluted Power during Monday's post-practice stretch by putting Power in the middle of the circle and pounding their sticks on the ice, and Granato loved seeing his team immersed in the moment. They know what his presence means. This is a head start on next season. Still don't understand why the Sabres aren't doing likewise in goal with Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.

Dahlin is at the point of his career that he's ready to share knowledge and not be pulled along, hence the pairing with Samuelsson after the Sabres' other big guy has struggled some in recent games. Power's debut means Tuesday's game will feature three of the last six No. 1 overall picks in Power, Dahlin (2018) and Matthews (2016).

"There's a guy over there that I'm pretty familiar with that's pretty hot right now," Granato said of Matthews, whom he knows from the U.S. National Development Team Program. "And I've been with Auston when he's on surges. And it's another daunting task."

Making your NHL debut in your hometown is big enough. Put poor Power can't even go dipping his toes into the water with this team. With Matthews on a 65-goal pace and one point from 100, and Mitch Marner leading the NHL in scoring over the last three months, Power is being asked to dive in right now.

"It's going to be pretty cool. I'm excited to see how they are and I just try to go out  there and play my game," Power said. "(Matthews) is a pretty incredible player. The amount of goals he's putting up is pretty insane."

How much of a pushback will the Leafs have against Power and the Sabres after Buffalo's last two victories over them? It could be intense.

"We'll see," said a smiling Jokiharju. "We'll see about that tomorrow."

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Related to this story

Kyle Okposo, Tage Thompson, Jeff Skinner and Rasmus Dahlin scored for the Sabres (27-37-11), who snapped a three-game skid and defeated Toronto three straight times for the first time since April 1, 2015 to March 7, 2016. Craig Anderson made 22 saves in goal, and Rasmus Asplund added an empty-net goal with 2:18 left in regulation. 

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