BUFFALO – The bench erupted like the Sabres had won the game. Ecstatic players stood and raised their arms in celebration after winger Lukas Rousek scored less than four minutes into his NHL debut.
As Rousek, 23, skated along the bench for the customary post-goal glove bumps, each of his teammates had a wide smile on his face.
“First shift, first shot, so it was awesome,” Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin said of Rousek’s goal in Tuesday’s 4-3 shootout loss. “It was really cool to be a part of.”
The enthusiastic reaction to Rousek’s goal against the Montreal Canadiens further illustrated the tight bond the Sabres have developed over the past two seasons.
“We all remember our first goal, it’s just jubilation,” Sabres captain Kyle Okposo said following Tuesday’s practice. “You just feel so happy for the guy. And I think that’s a special thing about our group is we’re just as happy when somebody else scores. That’s not always the case.”
— Buffalo Hockey moments (@SabresPlays) March 27, 2023
Sabres coach Don Granato said his older veterans – he mentioned Okposo, goalie Craig Anderson and winger Zemgus Girgensons – have used training camp to make youngsters feel like they’re an important part of the organization.
“Whether they’re going to end up at the end of training camp in Rochester or not, they’re part of the Buffalo Sabres,” Granato said. “Lukas comes back, I think he feels very welcomed in that locker room.”
He added: “There was genuine enthusiasm for a guy they got to know over the last two seasons.”
The Sabres might get to know the 5-foot-11, 191-pound Rousek a lot better in near future. While they sent the Czech rookie back to the Rochester Americans following Tuesday’s practice, he could return soon. Right now, center Tage Thompson and winger Jordan Greenway are sidelined with upper-body injuries.
The Sabres don’t play again until Friday. The Amerks host the Cleveland Monsters tonight.
Since leaving Czechia and joining the Amerks last season, he has made a strong impression, showcasing a mature approach while quietly developing into one of their top forward prospects.
Rousek, the 160th overall pick in 2019, became the Sabres’ first sixth-rounder to play a game for them since center Sean Malone, a 2013 selection who played one contest in 2016-17.
Barely a year ago, Rousek was recovering from ACL surgery and playing his first games in North America. Following a slow start, he emerged as a scoring threat during the Amerks’ 10-game playoff run.
Granato said Rousek’s “grind” has helped him reach a higher level this season. He has registered 15 goals and 49 points in 62 games and was the Amerks’ representative at the AHL All-Star Classic.
“He attacks every day,” Granato said “… Lukas has an incredible compete to him. Everything matters. Every puck battle, preparation for game matters. The day before the game matters.”
Rousek’s smarts and situational awareness – “He knows what job needs to get done,” Granato said – have impressed his coach and teammates.
“He’s just a really heady player,” Okposo said.
In the defensive zone, Granato said, Rousek might realize he needs to block a shot right away.
“And boom, he blocks the shot,” he said.
In another situation, Granato said, Rousek might see he has two tired defensemen on the ice and simply needs to get the puck out instead of making a fancy play.
“He has an incredible situational awareness for his age and experience that I think is the reason why he can be effective and was effective even (Monday) in his very first NHL game,” Granato said.
Against the Canadiens, Rousek scored at 3:49, converting a bounce off the end boards after he stationed himself to the left of the net.
“He went to the front of the net at the right time, he pushed off the guy at the right time and knew there was an opportunity coming before it came because of situational awareness,” Granato said.
Rousek said his family and close friends in Czechia, which is six hours ahead, stayed up and watched his debut. Following the game, he spoke to his father, Martin.
“He said, ‘Congrats and have fun,’” he said.
In the second period, Rousek earned an assist on defenseman Riley Stillman’s goal by tipping the puck to linemate Victor Olofsson at the blue line.
— Buffalo Hockey moments (@SabresPlays) March 28, 2023
“It was an entry play,” Granato said. “He just turned his stick to tip it because he knew we had another support player there. So he didn’t catch it and try to stickhandle and try to find the support guy. He already knew it was there before the puck came. Situational awareness. …
“As soon as he kicked it out near our bench, he drove the entire defensive group on the other team back to the net, which opened up the zone for pass options.”
Anderson, who hasn’t practiced since getting pulled from last Tuesday’s 7-3 loss to the Nashville Predators, is day to day with an upper-body injury, according to the Sabres.
Thompson, who missed Monday’s game, did not practice Tuesday.
Rookie Devon Levi, one of three goalies on the ice, had his own net during his first full practice with the Sabres.
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) March 27, 2023