Isak Rosen collected the puck in the right circle on the power play Thursday night with the opportunity to disappoint the Montreal Canadiens fans who made the trek to Buffalo to watch the debut of No. 1 draft pick Juraj Slafkovsky.
Rosen hesitated and, by the time he shot the puck, Canadiens goalie Joe Vrebtic was in position to make the save. The moment had no bearing on the Buffalo Sabres 4-3 win over Montreal in the opening game of the Prospects Challenge in LECOM Harborcenter, but it was an important lesson for Rosen as he adjusts to the pressure that comes with playing pro hockey in North America.
Rosen didn’t hesitate again. With the Sabres clinging to a one-goal lead and only seconds remaining in regulation, the Swedish winger blocked a shot to ensure victory.
“What a blocked shot," beamed Rochester coach Seth Appert. "That’s winning hockey. That’s a first-round pick, that’s a skilled player, that’s an offensive-minded player that did a lot of really good things tonight, yet he’s going out there with 15 seconds to go and he’s going to eat a puck to win a hockey game. I think that’s a great sign of what he stands for as a hockey player.”
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A Swedish winger drafted 14th overall in 2021, Rosen didn’t appear frustrated by his mishap in the first period or when Canadiens rookie Filip Mesar scored a shorthanded goal moments later to give Montreal a 2-0 lead. Rosen showed progress with every shift and touch of the puck, like he did at development camp in July.
On May 31, Isak Rosen signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Sabres, who selected him in the first round, 14th overall, at the draft last July.
Early in the second period, Rosen carried the puck into the offensive zone and, later in the possession, found defenseman Mats Lindgren open at the blue line. Lindgren, a fourth-round draft pick in July, fired the puck toward the net, where center Tyson Kozak tipped it past Vrebetic for a 3-2 lead.
Kozak finished with two goals, capped by his backhanded shot with 14:13 remaining in regulation. Josh Passolt and Nolan Burke also scored to help the Sabres rally from the early deficit.
“I told him yesterday, good on him because of how much better he even looks now than he did two months ago,” Appert added. “And that’s a credit to his work. I said it to him, you can see he was smiling, you can tell he knows it. He has put in a ton of work just in the two months since we saw him.”
Rosen, 19, had a difficult season after he was selected by the Sabres with the pick acquired in the Rasmus Ristolainen trade. Rosen’s ice time in the Swedish Hockey League was scarce and when he finally received playing time in the country’s second-tier league, he suffered a season-ending injury on a blocked shot that broke multiple bones in his hand.
To gain control of Rosen’s development, the Sabres signed him to a three-year entry-level contract with the plan to have him in Rochester this season. He, along with Aleksandr Kisakov and Jiri Kulich, will lead a revamped Amerks’ roster that’s expected to be without Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka, both of whom will compete for a roster spot in Sabres training camp.
"His speed is very impressive," said Appert. "He is – I think you saw it at the World Juniors – he’s one of the fastest players, I think he was clocked as like the second-fastest player at top speed in the whole World Junior tournament. He has explosive acceleration. He does it very effortlessly. So, his skating is special. He has very good creativity with his vision. But he is a bit of a goal scorer, which is great to see for a young player."
Development camp was challenge for Rosen at the start. He hadn’t played in a game since February. The longer offseason gave him time to train off the ice, but there’s no way to simulate demanding, competitive practices in front of Sabres coaches and management. Eventually, though, Rosen showed why he’s one of the most talented prospects in a burgeoning pipeline.
Then, at the IIHF World Junior Championship last month, Rosen was a standout in Sweden’s run to a bronze medal. His four goals were tied for the team lead and he finished with five points in seven games.
“Of course, when I came into World Juniors, I hadn’t played for like four months or something,” said Rosen. “I was pumped up to play again and playing with confidence and playing good first game and then just build on that. I’m just trying to build on that.”
Rosen played wing at Prospects Challenge and took the occasional faceoff after spending some time at center last season. It’s unclear where he’ll fit long term or how much time he’ll receive in Sabres training camp, but the game Thursday night was another reminder that he possesses the talent to make an impact in Rochester.
Here are other observations from the game:
1. Deep end
Matt Savoie didn’t have an easy matchup in his Sabres debut. Drafted ninth overall by Buffalo in July, Savoie was typically on the ice against Slafkovsky’s line and Montreal’s top defense pair, including NHLer Justin Barron. Savoie also got shifts on the penalty kill and power play. And while there weren’t any notable scoring chances, he made some impressive passes and performed well defensively.
Savoie was double-shifted in the third period, switching between center and wing.
Matt Savoie needed only one passing drill during his first practice in a Buffalo Sabres jersey to impress Rochester coach Seth Appert and remind onlookers, including management, why he was chosen ninth overall at the NHL Draft in July.
“Savoie’s work right is just so high,” said Appert. “He comes up with pucks and he made a lot of plays tonight that could have ended up in the net and didn’t, but Savoie on a night that isn’t all over the scoreboard still helps you wins hockey games because he does all the other things.”
2. Success story
Kozak is one of several development success stories for the Sabres since Kevyn Adams took over as general manager. A seventh-round draft pick in 2021, Kozak had a breakout season with Portland of the Western Hockey League and performed well at development camp to earn an entry-level contract. His work around the net help him standout in a pipeline that has several promising centers. Kozak, 19, almost completed the hat trick in the third period. In a one-year span, Kozak’s established himself as a legitimate NHL prospect.
“For me, I think before I got drafted I was more of a defensive-minded centerman, so I developed my offensive skills over the summers and now it’s paying off,” Kozak said.
3. Strong impression
Linus Weissbach must have gotten management’s attention with his performance Thursday night. Weissbach, a 23-year-old winger, setup the Sabres’ first goal, a redirect by Passolt, with a pass toward the far post and always seemed to make the smart pass when there didn’t seem to be room to make a play. A seventh-round pick in 2017, Weissbach had an impressive rookie season in Rochester with 37 points in 67 games.
"I think this year the focus for me this week is to kind of show that I’m no longer a prospect, that I’m more so ready to play and contribute at the highest level," said Weissbach.
Savoie centered Weissbach and Kisakov on the top line; Rosen and Lukas Rousek played with Kozak; Filip Cederqvist was at left wing next to Kohen Olischefski and Josh Bloom; and the fourth line was Passolt, Burke and Atley Calvert. Buffalo had three draft picks on defense: Lindgren, Oskari Laaksonen and Vsevolod Komarov.
The Sabres plan to have their two goalies, Warm and Tomas Suchanek, split the work this week. Warm, who signed an American Hockey League contract with Rochester, got the start Thursday and made a spectacular right pad save to deny Mesar less than four minutes into the first period. Suchanek was also exceptional for the latter half of the game to preserve the lead.
5. Injury update
Jiri Kulich, a center drafted 28th overall by the Sabres in July, won’t participate in the Prospects Challenge because of a lower-body injury that was discovered upon his arrival in Buffalo. Kulich, 18, is considered “day to day,” according to Rochester coach Seth Appert, and the Sabres are being cautious to ensure he is healthy for training camp.
Forward Matej Pekar and Olivier Nedeau, both of whom are recovering from shoulder surgery, will also not be on the ice for the showcase. Additionally, Bloom exited the game with an injury and didn't return.
Kozak tallied 34 goals and 40 assists in the regular season and 10 playoff games with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL.
The Prospects Challenge continues Friday with Boston vs. Ottawa and New Jersey vs. Montreal at 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m., respectively. The Sabres practice in LECOM Harborcenter at 11:30 a.m., in preparation for their game Saturday against New Jersey at 7 p.m.