BUFFALO – Call Casey Nelson the forgotten Sabres defenseman. As injuries ravaged the blue line earlier this season, he stayed in Rochester, playing big minutes as the Americans got off to their best start in years.
The Sabres recalled Nelson in mid-November. But he only sat out as a healthy scratch before going back to the AHL later in the month.
They finally summoned Nelson again following their bye week last month. When he made his season debut Jan. 18, he became the 13th defenseman to play for the Sabres this season.
Now, Sabres coach Phil Housley can’t pull Nelson, 25, from the lineup.
“I’m getting more confident every day,” Nelson said.
Saturday’s tilt against the St. Louis Blues inside KeyBank Center was his eighth straight appearance. The Minnesota State product has looked so good Housley has been playing him over veteran defensemen Justin Falk and Josh Gorges.
“I really like the way Casey’s playing,” Housley said. “I think he moves the puck really well, he’s defending really well, his gaps are really tight. That’s why he remains in the lineup.
“It’s always nice to have a right-hand shot as well. You look at his shots from the point, he finds ways to get pucks through to the net. He’s uncanny in that way.”
Nelson joined the Sabres as a free agent almost two years ago before making the big club out of training camp a year ago. However, he only played 11 NHL games in 2016-17.
This season, veterans Taylor Fedun, Zach Redmond and Matt Tennyson and top prospect Brendan Guhle all earned looks before the undrafted Nelson.
Quietly, Nelson, who often played with Guhle in Rochester, was enjoying a terrific season with Amerks, compiling two goals, 11 points and a plus-11 rating in 37 contests.
Nelson said he has made his biggest improvements defensively.
“I feel defensively … I can be out there against some of the top players and be good against them, just shut them down,” he said. “I think my plus-minus down in Rochester has showed that.”
He added: “We play against a few different lines, usually not their top line but sometimes we’re out there against them. You’ve just got to be confident in what you can do and just shut them down.”
Having never been suspended in his 229-game career, Sabres center Johan Larsson figured the NHL would slap him with a one-game ban for cross-checking Florida Panthers center Vincent Trocheck in the face late in Thursday’s 4-2 loss.
“I have no history, I’m kind of surprised I got two games,” Larsson said Saturday morning. “The guy didn’t get hurt or anything.”
During Friday’s phone hearing, Larsson argued he tried to hit Trocheck in the chest or shoulder and his stick rode up.
“I told them my story, my intention was not to cross-check him in the head,” he said.
Housley he “was a little surprised” Larsson received two games.
“Just the way the game played out, tempers were high, there were some chippy play on both parts being in the heat of the battle,” he said.
The Sabres made three lineup changes Saturday, inserting defenseman Nathan Beaulieu, who missed four games with an upper-body injury, for Gorges.
Winger Benoit Pouliot and center Evan Rodrigues also moved in. The Sabres needed to make a roster move to activate Beaulieu from injured reserve, so they sent winger Nick Baptiste back to the Rochester Americans.
“He was a guy that we had our eyes on, unsure whether he was going to play or not, because of his leadership abilities,” Blues coach Mike Yeo said. “You look at that assistant coaching position, how important it is for that guy to be able to have a relationship with the players, to be be able to deal with them in a one-on-one situation, understand what they’re going through, but also to push them into the direction that they need to go. He’s got that type of character.”