TORONTO – Owen Power had been in this situation before.
He was skating backward toward his own net while trying to prevent two opponents from connecting on a goal. The degree of difficultly, though, was far different Tuesday night.
This time, the puck carrier was defenseman Mark Giordano, a 16-year NHL veteran appearing in his 1,015th career regular-season game, and the opponent looking for a cross-slot pass was Auston Matthews, the NHL’s leading goal scorer and favorite to win the Hart Trophy.
Even when defending one of the best players in the world, Power showed the same poise that made him the first pick 2021 NHL Draft. He intercepted Giordano’s pass intended for Matthews to stifle the Toronto Maple Leafs' rush in the first period. It was one of several notable plays made by Power in his long-awaited NHL debut in Scotiabank Arena, only 25 miles from his hometown of Mississauga, Ontario.
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The box score from the Sabres’ 5-2 victory over the Maple Leafs doesn’t properly show the impact Power made in his first game for Buffalo.
"I thought he was outstanding tonight," coach Don Granato beamed.
At only 19 years old, Power finished with 19:50 of ice time and a plus-2 rating on defense. He kick-started his team’s offensive attack with crisp breakout passes, played sound defense around his own net and stabilized the Sabres’ defense corps.
Matthews enters the night with 58 goals, 41 assists and 99 points in 67 games. He's one point shy of his first 100-point season and only the fifth in Maple Leafs history.
Power accomplished this while facing one of the top teams in the NHL in front of a a crowd of 18,393 that included his family and friends. The moment has never been too big for Power, though.
"Smooth poise," Sabres winger Alex Tuch said of his newest teammate. "Right away, there’s no panic in his game. Feels like he’s been in the league for 10 years already and it was his first game."
Kyle Okposo, Tage Thompson, Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Dahlin and Rasmus Asplund scored for the Sabres (27-37-11), who snapped a three-game skid and won three consecutive matchups against the Maple Leafs (47-20-6) for the first time since April 1, 2015, to March 7, 2016.
Craig Anderson made 24 saves to earn his 306th career win, and Asplund added an empty-netter with 2:18 left in regulation.
Power’s parents were among the crowd of supporters standing at the glass as he took his first lap during pregame warmups. Fans held signs around the Sabres’ end of the ice to celebrate the top prospect's arrival. One boy even asked for a stick in exchange for a bottle of Powerade.
"It was pretty cool," said Power, who joked that he was determined to not fall.
Cameras were fixated on Power during the national anthems, only moments before he was on the ice for opening puck drop. The faceoff was won to Power, who played the puck up the boards to begin an offensive-zone possession that ended with a Toronto penalty.
He was unflappable in the face of the Maple Leafs’ pressure, escaping opposing forwards to help the Sabres exit the defensive zone. Granato couldn’t shelter Power in 5-on-5 situations. On the road, Buffalo has the first line change, meaning Toronto could choose which forward line to put on the ice against Power.
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.
He quickly adjusted to the size, speed and strength of NHL competition. There were no signs that Power was going to get beat around the edge when defending a rush, even with Matthews on the ice.
Power saw more ice time against Matthews than any other Sabre. Both teams had four shot attempts at 5-on-5 when those two were on the ice at the same time.
"I think it’s a good start," said Power. "I’ve got a lot of room to expand my game, so I think in a way I got my toes wet. But I definitely think I can be a lot better."
Power’s game defensively is more mature than most teenagers entering the NHL. His uncanny instincts with the puck weren’t on display yet. He officially skated only nine seconds on the power play, and he wasn’t eager to skate deep into the offensive zone. There will be more daring plays when Power becomes more comfortable. With the Sabres leading by three goals in the third period, Power was on the ice for a penalty kill and batted a puck out of the air, away from Buffalo's crease.
Power has the advantage of not needing to be a catalyst for change with the Sabres. He’s part of a promising young core of players who contributed to another solid performance against the franchise’s long-time rival. There’s also a group of reliable veteran players and a behind-the-scenes culture that fits Power’s desire to work toward a common goal of winning a Stanley Cup.
"Being the number one overall pick comes with its own pressure, let alone having your first NHL game, but he handled it like a 10-year pro," said Tuch. "It’s really good to see, and he has a really bright future ahead of him. He’ll be a superstar in this league."
Okposo’s 19th goal of the season, his highest total since 2015-16, gave Buffalo a 1-0 lead at 7:25 into the game.
After Toronto’s Timothy Liljegren tied the score, the Sabres roared back to take the lead with Thompson's 32nd goal of the season. Skinner then made it 3-1 only 4:09 into the third period.
Dahlin knows the scrutiny that will follow Power. And while the Sabres’ dressing room is filled with players eager to help and support him, Dahlin has wisdom that can help Power through the highs and lows as a teenager competing in the best league in the world.
The advantage grew to three goals with Dahlin’s goal off a cross-ice pass by Victor Olofsson that froze Kallgren in the crease. And the Sabres held off a late rally attempt, earning Power a win in a game he dreamed about as a kid growing up not far from downtown Toronto.
"Tremendous job," said Granato. "As I mentioned beforehand, I have no doubt that he’s rehearsed in his mind being in this building and in this league many times and it looked like it. He looked very natural from the drop of the puck."
Here are other observations from the game:
1. Helping hand
Henri Jokiharju had a strong first game as Power's defense partner. Jokiharju, 22, broke up a backdoor pass that could have been an easy Toronto goal in the third period and blocked Mitch Marner's shot from the slot when the score was 4-2 late in regulation.
2. Close call
The Sabres’ structure was mostly sound Tuesday night. They weren’t allowing odd-man rushes or wide-open looks on Anderson, who was solid in net. Liljegren scored Toronto’s first goal after the puck took a fortuitous bounce off the end boards, and Alex Kerfoot cut the deficit to 4-2 when his shot leaked through Anderson with 11:07 remaining in regulation.
The No. 1 overall pick's first steps with his NHL team took place during an optional morning skate after he signed his entry-level deal on Saturday.
This wasn’t the first time Dahlin has played the right side in the NHL. He saw some time there early this season. But Dahlin’s confidence is far higher now than it was months ago. He’s having a breakout season and should be considered one of the top young defensemen in the league. His value to the Sabres was on display again Tuesday with his reliable play on the right side of the blue line next to Mattias Samuelsson.
Dahlin had two points to reach a new career-high (46), and he has 10 goals this season. Tuch also had two primary assists for his 10th multi-point game of the season.
The Sabres will host the St. Louis Blues in KeyBank Center on Thursday night at 7 p.m.