TAMPA. Fla. – Two key things we all need to understand and remember about Owen Power: He doesn’t turn 20 years old for another two weeks and Saturday’s loss at Tampa Bay was just his 20th NHL game.
No, it wasn’t his 200th game – even if he looks and plays as if it were.
The Sabres’ injury situation on defense is the worst we’ve seen it since the 2006 nightmare in Carolina and got even darker when we suddenly learned Rasmus Dahlin was unable to answer the bell Saturday after he got his beak tweaked Friday in Raleigh.
(Memo to Jesperi Kotkaniemi: Fighting is allowed. You want to go, drop the mitts. Mashing an unsuspecting opponent with the leather is weak. You’d hope the Sabers won’t forget that.)
When Power first joined the Sabers in April from the University of Michigan, it was a Sunday in Tampa. Coach Don Granato had him take the ice for an optional morning skate and many players took it with him just to meet the hugely hyped draft pick and say hello. It wasn’t until two nights later in Toronto that Power made his NHL debut.
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Power watches all kinds of hockey so you know his eyes were locked on the Stanley Cup final in June, the third consecutive time the Tampa Bay Lightning were playing for hockey’s top prize. The Bolts lost it, of course, to Colorado but except for departed free agent Ondrej Palat, their entire veteran forward corps is back.
The Buffalo Sabers lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night, 5-3, and dropped games on consecutive nights on their Southern road swing. It was a noble effort under very adverse conditions, which made the result much more gut-wrenching.
Power was undeterred Saturday, playing a remarkable 28 minutes, 14 seconds. He had two assists, a plus-1 rating and six hits in the game. Look deeper and Power’s performance was even more astonishing.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Sabers had 73.2% of the shot attempts (30-11), 76% of the scoring chances (22-7) and 75% of the high danger chances (9-3) when Power was on the ice at 5 on 5. That represented 23:58 of his ice time, playing mostly against Tampa’s top forwards in front of the usual roaring sellout crowd in Amalie Arena. Amazing.
“I’m obviously tired, but I think it was kind of a good challenge for me to do that and hopefully we can build off of that,” Power said. “They’re obviously a real experienced team and hard to play against. I think it’s been good for me to play those big minutes and just get more comfortable in the league.”
“He’s one hell of a player, one hell of a talented kid. And he handled it in this building,” Granato said. “He didn’t get to play in this building last year because it was his first day with us and I thought he was going to be ready to play today based on that. And he certainly was. The environment did not affect him one by one bit. And I can’t say that for every guy on the team. It was just amazing his performance tonight and his focus.”
Power’s determination to be better away from the puck, combined with the work he puts in on the ice and in the video room, led to his best performance to date Wednesday night. Not only did Power make a highlight-reel pass to set up the tying goal, but he helped shut down the Pittsburgh Penguins in the third period and finished with 23:51 of ice time.
This kind of minutes munching by Power is accelerating his entire development plan. Rest assured it was nowhere on the Sabres’ bingo card for this season that Power would be their No. 2 defenseman by early November, nor playing on a top pair prior to Thanksgiving. But when the injuries first hit with Henri Jokiharju going down in Calgary, Power’s minutes started to go up. And when Mattias Samuelsson and Ilya Lyubushkin went down, there wasn’t much choice.
Power was at 25:27 in Vancouver and 24:04 in Seattle, and then 23:54 on the return home against Montreal, a game where he struggled to a minus-3 rating playing alongside Dahlin.
That pair was too much about offense so Granato shelved it after one game and Power has found a home next to Kale Clague in the last five. The last three games really stand out. Power has four assists and a plus-4 rating against Pittsburgh, Carolina and Tampa Bay, with his ice times at 23:51, 24:43 and Saturday’s 28:14, respectively. That included 10:39 of the third period Saturday.
Sure, Power had some moments against the Lightning like most defensemen do, notably when Brayden Point spin-o-rama’d him in circles to create one second-period scoring chance that Eric Comrie snuffed out. But Power was mostly sure-handed in his own end and was a beast with the puck in the neutral zone and in the Tampa end of the rink. The last three games are a capsule look at what kind of stud the Sabers could have on their blueline for many years, exactly what you hope to get from a No. 1 overall pick.
For the season, Power entered Sunday at 30th in the NHL in average ice time at 23:09 while Dahlin was fifth at 25:54. Among rookies, Power is the runaway leader by more than two minutes. Next is Montreal’s Kaiden Guhle at just 20:56, and only Guhle and Montreal’s Jordan Harris (20:47) are even at more than 19:07. Power is tied for second in rookie scoring with seven points and tied for the lead in assists (7).
Now comes another massive week for Power and the Sabres. After hosting Arizona on Tuesday – and don’t brush off the Coyotes after they beat Florida on Tuesday and won in Washington on Saturday – the Sabers entertain Jack Eichel-led Vegas on Thursday and Boston on Saturday. That’s only the NHL’s top two teams.
The Sabers were off Sunday and Dahlin’s uncertain status will be topic No. 1 come practice Monday.
“I think it’s been good for me to kind of play those big minutes and just get more comfortable in the league,” Power said. “It’s not ideal for the guys that are hurt and for the team, but I think it’s a good opportunity.”
“You’re cognizant and conscious of not giving them too much work that could jeopardize their confidence,” Granato said. “You make mistakes and it might take a while to recover but I don’t worry about him in that category because he has such a high IQ combined with the skill. This is hockey. It’s the NHL, but it’s hockey and he knows hockey . So he fits in well.”
When the anniversary of the Eichel trade hit on Friday, there were all kinds of where-were-you-when moments discussed. Granato had reporters in stitches explaining how Kevyn Adams made him keep the news from his assistant coaches and Alex Tuch explained he was home in Vegas nursing his injury when his phone rang.
Peyton Krebs was with the Golden Knights in Ottawa preparing for a game that night against the Senators when his world changed.
“I went to bed at 10:30 just like a regular sleep and I woke up at 5 am with three missed calls from (Vegas GM) Kelly McCrimmon,” Krebs told me Friday in Carolina. “I called my dad and I was like, ‘Jeez, it’s 5 a.m. Should I call him?’ I was nervous. I didn’t want to call the GM at 5 am My dad said, ‘Just call him. I’m sure if he’s calling at that time it’s something important. So I called him and he said, ‘I’ I’m sure you’ve seen the news.” Well, I just woke up so I hadn’t seen anything.”
See who holds the No. 1 spot and where the Sabers land this week.
Krebs did, however, know his name had been floating around in an Eichel deal if Vegas could get involved.
“I knew we were in the mix but I didn’t know how much,” Krebs said. “I really think the whole league just kind of wanted that trade to be done so it could be over with and I just happened to be a part of it. It seems like it’s really worked out well for both sides.”
Indeed, Eichel enters Tuesday’s game in Toronto with five goals, 14 points and a plus-10 rating in his 11 games and the word is his 200-foot game is mushrooming under coach Bruce Cassidy, much as it was going during his Top-10 Hart Trophy season in Buffalo in 2019-20.
Alex Tuch fits so seamlessly with this team that it feels like he has been around for several years, writes Mike Harrington.
Tuch and Thompson silent on trip
It was a quiet two games for Tuch, who had no shots on goal in either Carolina or Tampa. And Tage Thompson found out that after a six-point game and 11 points in three games, you’re really going to get a lot more attention on and off the ice.
After the morning skate Wednesday against Pittsburgh, Thompson was cornered in the hallway outside the dressing room by TNT announcers Brendan Burke and Darren Pang, and Pittsburgh voices Steve Mears and Bob Errey. Following the 6-3 win, Thompson was the player who went national with the TNT studio crew.
The big guy will join Dahlin in getting his name and number circled on opponents’ white boards. In the two games down South, Thompson combined for one secondary assist, had only six shots on goal and was minus-2. Granato cut his ice time back to just 4:47 in the third period Saturday.
“Tage, I don’t think he was normal Tage,” Granato said. “You know these guys, you see these guys. I felt other guys were going, shifted (Jeff) Skinner with (Dylan) Cozens. I thought ‘Skinny’ was going and I thought that might be a boost. And obviously they scored soon after. I got Tage back in and he finished stronger, pushed harder. He’s been hot. I don’t think he felt it like he’s been feeling it lately and that happens.”