BUFFALO – Sabres winger Viktor Neuchev scored in front early, converting center Tyson Kozak’s nifty backhand pass from behind the net. Winger Zach Benson followed minutes later, releasing a wicked shot from the left circle.
After the New Jersey Devils scored in the second period, winger Isak Rosen zoomed to the net unfettered, recording his second goal in as many nights.
The early goals in Saturday’s 4-2 win at the Prospects Challenge in LECOM Harborcenter further illustrate how much young depth the Sabres have assembled. Each of their first three scorers skated on one of the top three lines.
“You can just see in the first period today, we don’t play very good but we’re still up 2-0 after the first period because, yeah, the whole room is so skilled in there,” Rosen said of a first period in which New Jersey outshot the Sabres 8-5.
In Friday’s 6-3 win over the Montreal Canadiens, at least one forward from each of the top three lines also scored.
Kozak and Neuchev have been playing with Aleksandr Kisakov on the third line. On the other five teams in the rookie tournament, that would possibly be the top combination.
Benson, one of five first-round picks on the roster, has been skating with Matt Savoie, the ninth overall pick in 2022, and Filip Cederqvist. Savoie scored twice Friday.
That’s considered the second trio because first-rounders Jiri Kulich and Isak Rosen, both of whom just enjoyed standout rookie seasons with the Rochester Americans, have been skating beside Olivier Nadeau on the first line.
Kulich, the center, scored late for the second straight night Saturday.
The fourth line has featured five forwards through two games.
“I was real happy when I looked back yesterday at the ice times, the disparity amongst the forwards wasn’t very strong at all in time on ice. Top guys are like 16, 17. Lowest guys were like 12, 13, and that’s a really good sign,” Amerks coach Seth Appert said. “That’s a credit to our scouts. That’s a credit to Kevyn (Adams) and Jason (Karmanos) and our scouting department. They’re drafting not only the top guys, but the depth of the picks, and the fourth and fifth and sixth and seventh rounders, free agent signings, that they can come into a tournament of this caliber and that we can roll four lines.”
That depth extends to goaltending.
In a few days, Josh Fleming, a tournament invite, will likely return to Acadie-Bathurst, where he will begin his second season with the Titan, a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team.
Still, he has clearly made a strong impression on Appert.
With three games in four days and back-to-back contests, the Sabres utilized Fleming on Saturday, and he looked sharp while stopping 21 shots.
The undrafted Fleming, 18, began last season with the Grand Falls Rapids (New Brunswick), a Maritime Junior Hockey League team, after getting cut from QMJHL.
After he earned a spot with Acadie-Bathurst early in the season, he posted a .903 save percentage in 40 games behind a porous defense.
“More often than not, goalies that have had the hard route and have had massive amounts of adversity and have been cut and have been given up on, those are goalies you see matriculating to (the) highest levels of hockey,” said Appert, a former goalie. “When I was (coaching) in college, I always looked for goaltenders who had ugly pasts, because it’s a lonely position.
“When you’ve been cut and you’ve had to pull off the mat and then go back to tier-2 hockey and then work your way back to major junior, that inner confidence you have from going through those things is important in that position.”
Appert loved the calmness Fleming showcased Saturday.
“In chaotic moments, in sold-out buildings when all heck is breaking loose, the bench gets a sense of calm when they look down and see a goaltender being calm back there, and it almost doesn’t feel like it’s a big scoring chance (we) gave up,” he said. “And I thought he gave us that presence tonight.”
Notes: Defenseman Nikita Novikov recorded two more assists, giving him five for the tournament. … Saturday’s game was sold out. … The Sabres close the tournament Monday against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
We discuss Week 1, today’s Raiders game, the Prospects Challenge and more in our second episode:https://t.co/0VZhrdfaRv
— Bill Hoppe (@BillHoppeNHL) September 17, 2023