OTTAWA – As a native of nearby Barrhaven, about a 10-minute drive from the Canadian Tire Centre, Buffalo Sabres rookie Nick Baptiste had quite the cheering section for his sixth NHL game.
“There’s going to be a lot of people here tonight – a lot of family, friends, teachers, people in the area,” Baptiste said prior to Saturday’s 2-1 comeback win against the Senators, his first NHL appearance here. “My brother’s whole hockey team is coming. There’s going to be quite a bit of people. I got to try to channel as much as I can and just play.”
What’s quite a bit? Perhaps 50?
“Oh, I think 50 is like a real understatement,” Baptiste said. “I might have 50 people just wanting to see me after the game. It’s going to be in the 100s, I assume.”
Baptiste, 21, has acclimated well to the NHL. The speedy winger has been noticeable at times, consistently earning more ice time. Sabres coach Dan Bylsma even briefly promoted him to the top line beside center Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle Okposo in Thursday’s 2-1 loss to Toronto.
“I feel a little bit of confidence,” said Baptiste, who compiled three goals and five points in five AHL games following a strong NHL training camp. “When you get more minutes and you get out there with guys like that, it kind of jumpstarts you a little bit.”
Bylsma said: “He’s going to get those opportunities … (with) how he can force opposition with his speed.”
Baptiste, a 2013 third-round pick, started Saturday on the right side with center Derek Grant and William Carrier, 21, who made his NHL debut.
Baptiste said he had previously played at the Canadian Tire Centre in an Ontario Hockey League game. He also won the Bell Capital Cup, a national youth tournament, here about nine years ago.
While the Senators consistently enjoyed success not long ago, Baptiste said he “wasn’t a humongous Sens fan.”
“I watched the Sens play because they were the team here, but there was no one really I looked up to too much back in the day,” he said.
Instead of a local player, Baptiste looked up to former Toronto Maple Leafs star Mats Sundin and Jarome Iginla, a 19-year veteran who plays for the Colorado Avalanche.
It was almost a year ago, around the time, not coincidentally, Marcus Foligno began the most consistent stretch of his career, that the Sabres winger finally developed a shoot-first mentality.
By the end of 2015-16, Foligno had pumped a career-high 81 shots on goal. Considering he registered only nine shots in his first 20 games, the number was significant.
These days, Foligno’s consistently shooting the puck. No, he’s not exactly Alex Ovechkin. Still, Foligno had 13 shots in 10 games entering Saturday’s game. He had four shots in Thursday’s 2-1 loss to Toronto, scoring the Sabres’ only goal.
“I’m just trying to get the shot off,” Foligno said. “That’s something I was harped on a little bit. Coming over the blue line, there’s no bad shot getting a shot on net. You never know what’s going to happen. So sometimes you’re a little bit stubborn, you want to look to pass before shooting or you don’t feel comfortable in a certain position. I really do emphasize on shooting this year.”
Bylsma urged the 6-foot-3, 228-pound Foligno to utilize his underrated shot last season. When Foligno gets off his game, Bylsma said, he “tends to fight” the shoot-first mentality.
“When he’s on his game he has that shoot-first mentality … he’s getting chances and shots like he did (Thursday) around the net, second-chances opportunities,” Bylsma said.
Bylsma said backup goalie Anders Nilsson will likely play one of the back-to-backs against the New Jersey Devils on Friday or next Saturday. Nilsson recently played three straight games subbing for starter Robin Lehner.
Senators backup goalie Mike Condon, who played 55 games with Montreal last season, has already been property of three teams this season.
Pittsburgh claimed him on waivers from the Canadiens on Oct. 11. He played 20 minutes for the Penguins before they traded him to the Senators on Wednesday.
Condon posted a 27-save shutout Thursday after flying in from California.