BUFFALO – Matej Pekar couldn’t stop smiling. After eight months anxiously waiting on the sideline, the Sabres prospect was just hours away from playing a game again.
“It definitely feels like forever,” Pekar said prior to Friday’s 6-4 win over the New Jersey Devils in the Prospects Challenge opener. “I haven’t played a game since January.”
On Jan. 10, the affable Pekar, 19, broke his collarbone with the Ontario Hockey League’s Barrie Colts, ending his season after only 33 games with the junior club.
Still, Pekar’s rookie campaign solidified his place among the Sabres’ top prospects. The forward’s mix of skill and grit often makes him the most electrifying player on the ice.
Pekar impressed the Sabres so much they signed him to an entry-level contract after only 10 games with the Colts.
The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Czech loves thumping and agitating opponents, and he didn’t waste any time showcasing his regular aggressive style in the rookie tournament.
“I think I can jump back in right now,” said Pekar, who compiled 14 goals and 36 points with the Colts. “I don’t think I can drop that game right now.”
On Friday, Pekar was his usual tenacious self inside Harborcenter, hounding pucks, banging bodies and generally being a pest.
In the second period, Pekar hit Michael McLeod near the benches, got into a shoving match and nearly fought the Devils center.
Then early in the third, Pekar finally dropped the gloves, scrapping with Devils defenseman Michael Vukojevic.
The bout ignited the crowd and Buffalo’s bench.
“That’s unbelievable to see,” Sabres winger Victor Olofsson said. “He’s a pain in the (butt) for the other team. He’s a lot of fun to watch.”
Sabres center Dylan Cozens, Pekar’s good friend, knew he would fight.
“It’s his first game in a while,” Cozens said. “I know he wants to make an impression. He’s a scrappy guy, a tough guy.”
Pekar, of course, relishes his role as a rat. Remember when he hit Sabres center Casey Mittelstadt in the head and shoved him during his first development camp?
Where does that edge come from?
“I honestly can’t tell you,” Pekar said. “Maybe I was just born with that. I don’t know, kind of the nature, maybe sometimes I’m super competitive. Hockey’s a physical sport, as long as it’s nothing dirty, I think there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Pekar, a fourth-round pick in 2018, 94th overall, tried to utilize his time away from game action wisely.
“I couldn’t skate for like the first six, seven weeks, so I just focused more on off-ice stuff,” said Pekar, who is listed five pounds heavier than last year. “I just felt that I was kind of behind with that.”
He added: “The injury helped me out to have more time to get stronger and heavier and hopefully better as well on the ice. I try to look at it as positives there.”
In March, the Sabres sent Pekar to the Rochester Americans to practice and get a feel for the pro hockey life. His brief stint with the AHL affiliate was an eye-opener.
“I loved it there,” he said. “I think it was great experience for me, definitely a great step moving forward that I saw how good players are in the pros. It was definitely a good measurement going into the summer how much work I had to put in.”
Pekar also spent about a month this summer working out in Buffalo, where he roomed with Cozens, the seventh overall pick in June.
The youngsters, who played on a line together Friday with Lukas Rousek, got to know each other well.
“We were roommates, so we were with each other for the whole day long,” Pekar said. “We were just into the same TV shows, too, so that made it easier. We had fun.”
The Sabres annihilated the Devils early before a packed house, opening up a 6-0 lead.
Winger Kyle Olson, a camp invite, scored 30 seconds into the contest. Olofsson and winger Andrew Oglevie also scored before the first period ended.
Cozens, center Arttu Ruotsalainen and defenseman Will Borgen scored in the second period before slick center Jack Hughes, the first overall pick in June, ended goalie Jonas Johansson’s shutout bid at 16:17.
Olofsson, a 30-goal scorer in the AHL last season, looked dynamic, also assisting on two goals and hitting two posts.
The Swede played six games with the Sabres as a rookie in 2018-19.
Borgen, Olofsson and center Rasmus Asplund served as alternate captains. The Sabres didn’t use a regular captain.
The Sabres play the Boston Bruins tonight.