PITTSBURGH – Buffalo Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe understands how valuable the late-season NHL experience rookies Hudson Fasching and Casey Nelson have been gaining will be for their development.
Two years ago, McCabe, 22, left the University of Wisconsin following his junior year. McCabe loved college and wanted to stay with the Badgers. Still, as a former second-round pick ready for pro hockey, he knew he needed to join the Sabres.
“It made too much sense for me to leave,” McCabe said Tuesday prior to scoring his fourth goal and first since Dec. 15 in the Sabres’ 5-4 shootout loss to the Penguins inside the Consol Energy Center.
McCabe signed and played his first seven NHL games at the end of the 2013-14 season.
Fasching, a winger and a former fourth-round pick, and Nelson, a defenseman the Sabres signed as a free agent, both played their third NHL games Tuesday against Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby. In Buffalo’s 3-2 loss Monday in Detroit, they faced Red Wings stars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, two of the league’s best forwards for more than a decade.
“It’s big,” McCabe said about the competition. “Getting your feet wet a little bit in the National Hockey League is a good thing. They’re playing some world-class players. … They’ve been superstars in this league. So I think it’s an eye-opening experience and just kind of maybe use it as a measuring stick of where you need to get to, where you need to be come next year.”
Following his late-season run, McCabe spent all but two games with the Rochester Americans last season before earning regular NHL duty in October.
While rookie winger Sam Reinhart quickly became the Sabres’ biggest surprise this season, McCabe, who’s still a rookie, was expected to spend at least some of the season in the AHL again. Other than a one-game assignment in October, he has been up all year.
Right now, McCabe’s playing beside Zach Bogosian on the Sabres’ second pair. McCabe had played 20 or more minutes in 13 straight games before Tuesday.
“Obviously, it was my goal to be up here all year,” McCabe said. “I don’t think I’ve exceeded expectations. I have high expectations for myself, and I think a lot of guys in this room do.”
Why has McCabe been able to stick?
“I think he’s shown he can play defensively,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “He’s shown he can play offensively with the puck as well. One of the things he’s shorn up in his game is his puck play, his ability to play with the puck, making the first pass, making a quick neutral zone pass. Right now, he’s a relied upon defender, a relied upon penalty killer.”
McCabe and Bogosian form a unique pair. Both players possess similar styles.
“We’re guys that can skate and like to play physical,” McCabe said. “We do kind of feed off each other. If someone makes a big hit or a makes a good defensive play, that kind of energizes us. We can move up ice and move our feet, getting that puck, moving up ice.”
With Sabres winger Evander Kane sidelined Tuesday, Bylsma shuffled his lines, moving No. 1 center Ryan O’Reilly to the left wing beside center Jack Eichel and Reinhart early.
The Sabres’ new “super line” began the night with 62 total goals this season. No one else in the lineup had more than 10.
To replace Kane, Cal O’Reilly, a healthy scratch for two games, returned. Zemgus Girgensons, Eichel’s winger recently switched back to center, a position he has thrived at in the past.
Bylsma clearly hopes moving Ryan O’Reilly up to the wing, where he played briefly in October, will help him start scoring goals again. The Sabres’ lone NHL All-Star ended his 24-game drought early Tuesday with his 18th goal, although it was a short-handed score with David Legwand.
“With Ryan on the wing, I think you’ll have the benefit of Jack being the transporter of the puck, a guy who can lug the puck and possibly be more of an opportunity for Ryan to be the recipient of a couple pucks and maybe have an opportunity to (score),” Bylsma said.
Kane (upper body) is day-to-day after getting hurt Monday and will be evaluated when the Sabres return to Buffalo, Bylsma said.
The Buffalo Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association has nominated Ryan O’Reilly as its Masterton Trophy nominee, an award given to the player “who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.”
O’Reilly, 25, has become the Sabres’ biggest heart-and-soul presence in his first season in Buffalo.
He called the nomination a “huge honor.”
“It’s nice to just kind of get recognition for dedication to hockey, too,” O’Reilly said. “It’s something I love doing. To be recognized for it, it’s a special thing, and I’m definitely very thankful for it.”