Buffalo Sabres prospect J-J Peterka couldn’t stop smiling.
Yes, he had only experienced a preseason victory. And his late goal in Tuesday’s come-from-behind, 5-4 shootout triumph doesn’t officially count in the record books.
Still, for Peterka, linemate Jack Quinn and the other youngsters who buoyed the Sabres to an unlikely win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, the exhibition opener likely holds a lot of meaning.
The Sabres roared back in the third period, erasing a 4-1 deficit to stun the Blue Jackets.
Peterka scored with 2:04 left, converting a nifty feed from Linus Weissbach in close. Then Weissbach, another rookie making his preseason debut, tied it with 54 seconds left.
“We just played with heart in the third,” Peterka said on a Zoom call from Nationwide Arena. “Everyone was working for everyone and everyone was supporting, everyone wanted us to get the puck deep, to get the pucks on the net and everyone was also cheering for each other. That was an awesome feeling.”
Quinn scored the shootout’s only goal, utilizing an array of slick moves to beat Blue Jackets goalie Jet Greaves.
“He pulled that off a couple of times in the practices, too, and I knew if he comes like that on the goalie he will put that one in,” Peterka said.
In a year or two, after Peterka and Quinn acclimate to pro hockey, they could flank center Dylan Cozens on the Sabres’ No. 1 trio.
But on Tuesday the intriguing line was simply a preseason experiment. Instead of putting the talented youngsters beside veterans, Sabres coach Don Granato wanted them to learn on their own.
“It’s exciting to think we have three very talented, young players like that in our organization,” Granato said Tuesday morning inside KeyBank Center. “And I say talented and skilled, not yet experienced. They’re just going to gain experience in every situation. … There’s certainly things they can do from a skill standpoint.
“I don’t think anybody would be surprised if they scored, but there’s a lot of details that I think they’re going to pick up on just by playing together.”
By putting them together, Granato said “there’s nobody to bail them out for their mistakes.”
“So we need to take that video and show them that whatever they see they can make improvements on,” he said. “I’d rather have them exposed right now so know exactly what we need to work on than having someone cover up for them and it’s maybe they need to work on and maybe they don’t.”
It took a while for Peterka, Quinn and the rest of the Sabres to get going.
“All our guys were feeling it and we were overthinking it and probably processing it,” Granato said. “My challenge to them was, ‘Don’t overanalyze anything. We’re not playing hard enough. We need to elevate out intensity and passion for the game.’
“I think that gets you in the game more. You start feeling better when you focus your energy on that. And just the effort you can bring playing a more direct game, we did that. (Peterka) did that and he looked much better.”
Peterka said: “I had to take some time to figure out how high the pace is here and how much you got here. But I think as the game went on, I felt more comfortable in those areas.”
Quinn, the eighth overall pick last year, felt more comfortable playing right wing in his exhibition debut. He switched to center late last season with the Rochester Americans and remained there during rookie camp.
“It’s a good thing I’m starting there tonight,” Quinn said prior to the game.
The Sabres have eased Quinn, who underwent hernia surgery in April, into the new season. They sat him out of the second Prospects Challenge rookie game and rested him early in training camp.
“I got a little sore, a little tight after Prospects Challenge,” Quinn said. “So I took a few days and rehabbed it. I feel great now.”
Quinn’s move back to wing, of course, is not permanent.
“I think it’s going to be movement,” Granato said. “These guys have to learn how to play different positions. Again, in our business, crunch time, the way injuries happen, the way things happen, the more experience you get at more positions the better and that’s part of the process with him playing center.
“We know he can play wing and we know he’s good there and has real good potential there. We, especially now when he’s taking so much in and learning and adapting and adjusting, threw that at him. Whether he does it three weeks from now, we don’t know. But getting him that experience we feel is valuable right now.”
Notes: Center Arttu Ruotsalainen and winger Michael Mersch, a veteran who signed a two-year AHL contract with Rochester, scored the Sabres’ other goals. … Weissbach also assisted on Mersch’s goal and had three points. … Goalie Aaron Dell started and stopped 12 of the 15 shots he faced before Dustin Tokarski replaced him halfway through the second period. Tokarski stopped 16 of 17 shots.