Robert Hagg must have thought the puck wouldn’t make it to the other side of the net. The Buffalo Sabres defenseman seemed to cut off any passing lane when he dropped to one knee and held the shaft of his stick flush to the ice.
This was Connor McDavid, though. Somehow, the human highlight reel with an otherworldly skill set sent a back-hand pass across the crease to the opposite post, where his fellow superstar teammate, Leon Draisaitl, banked a shot off Dustin Tokarski and in to take the lead for the Edmonton Oilers in the second period Friday night.
The goal occurred amid the Oilers’ fifth power play and could have sent the Sabres into a tailspin. Then, the 20-year-old center tasked with shutting down McDavid showed why he’s a key figure in general manager Kevyn Adams’ plan to build a winner in Buffalo.
Dylan Cozens scored twice in a span of 5:14 – including a rebound chance where he beat McDavid to a loose puck – for his first career multi-goal game, and Tokarski delivered several remarkable saves in the third period to help the Sabres snap their five-game skid with a 3-2 win.
“The way he played tonight, he had an amazing game,” beamed coach Don Granato, referring to Cozens. “My trust in him has always been there, definitely long term. … His ceiling, I can't tell you where his ceiling is. It's high.”
The Sabres (6-5-2) improved to 5-1-1 at home this season and overcame six penalties against the league’s top-ranked power play. Tokarski delivered 33 saves, and Anders Bjork also had a goal for Buffalo.
While the result wasn’t possible without Tokarski’s heroics, this was about Cozens facing his most difficult test to date. With only one goal in his previous 32 games, Cozens had a long meeting with Granato this week to go over video clips from recent games. It was during that conversation when Granato asked Cozens if he was ready to be line matched with McDavid.
“I liked what I saw and felt he was ready for the challenge, whichever way it went,” said Granato.
Of Cozens’ 12:56 of ice time at 5-on-5, 9:16 was against McDavid, a two-time Hart Trophy winner who has a 13-game point streak to start the season for the first-place Oilers (10-3). The Sabres had only two fewer shot attempts when Cozens was matched up with McDavid at even strength. And it was Cozens, the seventh overall draft pick in 2019, who produced the defining moments while skating on a forward line with Vinnie Hinostroza and Drake Caggiula.
The momentum shift began when Caggiula intercepted Duncan Keith’s pass intended for McDavid and quickly sent the puck to Cozens, who split the defense and beat goalie Stuart Skinner with a shot to the far side to tie the score 2-2 at 13:56 into the second period.
With under a minute remaining in the period, Cozens sprung Hinostroza for a breakaway and the winger’s initial shot was stopped by Skinner. Cozens, though, beat McDavid to the loose puck to give the Sabres the lead.
“If I knew a couple years ago that my first time going against McDavid that I’d be line matched against him, it would have been a little overwhelming,” Cozens said with a smile. “But I try not to overthink and just go out and play. Just try to look at him as any other play, another guy on the opposing team.”
Despite playing the second game of a back-to-back, Edmonton drew six penalties through 28:40, although at least one of the calls drew the ire of the Sabres’ bench.
Buffalo was unable to stop Draisaitl, who scored his league-leading 12th and 13th goals of the season. His first – on the power play – occurred on a backhanded shot when he found a soft spot in the Sabres’ coverage and tied the score 1-1 at 4:08 into the second period. He gave his team the lead less than three minutes later by finishing the pass by McDavid. The duo has combined for 21 goals and 52 points in 13 games.
The Sabres, though, did not allow a shot on goal for the first 7:54 of the third period. Edmonton then peppered Tokarski with 14 shots the rest of the way, all of which he stopped, including consecutive saves on Draisaitl late in regulation. But after the game, it was Cozens who emerged from the tunnel with a spotlight cast overhead.
Announced as the game’s first star, Cozens saluted the crowd with a stick raised high in the air. Nine of his family members, including his parents, made the trip across the border to see this in-person. Although Cozens repeated that this is only “one game,” it means far more to the Sabres now and into the future.
“He’s got every tool in the toolbox and it’s just a matter of time before he breaks out and is a star in this league,” Caggiula said of Cozens.
Here are other observations from the game Friday:
1. Trending up
Bjork seemed like a sure-fire top-six winger for the Sabres, but he didn’t have a strong training camp or start to the season. Bjork, 25, skated fewer than 10 minutes in each of the club’s final two games on the West Coast road trip. He’s delivered three straight solid performances and scored his second goal of the season at 2:16 into the second period to give Buffalo a 1-0 lead.
Bjork stole the puck from Cody Ceci and scored on a breakaway by catching Skinner flatfooted deep in his crease. This was also an outstanding game for Jacob Bryson, who knocked McDavid off the puck late in the third period.
2. Overturned calls
Both teams had a goal overturned in the first period, beginning with Darnell Nurse’s shot that ricocheted off Tokarski and appeared to go over his right shoulder for a 1-0 Edmonton lead at 2:14 into the game. The Sabres challenged the call and replay showed the puck went off the post at the top left corner of the net.
Arttu Ruotsalainen seemed to score the opening goal at 9:46 when the Sabres forward tipped Bryson’s point shot, but a challenge determined that Ruotsalainen’s stick was above the crossbar when it touched the puck.
The Sabres will host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night with puck drop scheduled for 7 p.m. Aaron Dell is expected to be in goal for Buffalo.