BUFFALO, N.Y. – Sabres rookie forward Zack Kassian figures it’s too early to consider whether he has a chance to make it in the NHL as early as this season.
As first impressions go, Buffalo’s 2009 first-round draft pick didn’t look out of place with the impact he made in helping the Sabres open their pre-season with a 3-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night.
The hard-hitting Kassian opened the game by bowling over Toronto’s Christian Hanson. And after setting up Tyler Ennis’ goal midway through the second period, Kassian forced a turnover that led to Rob Niedermayer scoring 1:47 later to put Buffalo ahead 3-0.
“It felt great,” Kassian said. “Hopefully, I impressed the coaches and hopefully I can get into another one and keep on improving every shift and every game.”
Coach Lindy Ruff liked what he saw.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Ruff said. “He set a pretty good tone by knocking somebody six-to-eight feet backward and then on the offensive side did a lot of good things with the puck.”
Andrej Sekera also scored, Derek Roy had two assists and Ryan Miller stopped all nine shots he faced in playing a little over 30 minutes.
Nikolai Kulemin scored late in the second period for the pre-season-weary Maple Leafs (2-2-1), who were playing their fifth game in five nights. Toronto was outshot 22-10 after 33 minutes and 44-25 overall.
The Leafs didn’t get their first shot on goal of the second period until the 9:16 mark, when Miller got his glove out to snag former Sabres player Clarke MacArthur’s snap shot from the left circle to foil a 2-on-1 break.
Maple Leafs prospect Nazem Kadri continued to struggle in his bid to make the team. Selected seventh overall in the 2009 draft, Kadri failed to register a point despite 16:34 of ice time in his third game this pre-season.
That’s a setback for a player who had three goals and two assists in six pre-season games a year ago.
“I’ve been getting chances, I’ve just got to bear down and capitalize,” Kadri said. “I think physically and mentally I’m all there. With a little more practice I think I’ll be pretty sharp. Given the opportunity, I’ll hopefully cash in on it.”
Toronto’s power play failed on three consecutive chances in the final 11 minutes, and finished 0 for 4.
Up 1-0, Ennis scored 9:37 into the second period, converting a 2-on-1 break by backhanding in Kassian’s bouncing pass beneath Jonas Gustavsson, who stopped 17-of-19 shots.
Kassian then set up Niedermayer’s goal by charging at Jesse Blacker, forcing the defenceman to cough up the puck. The puck rolled to Niedermayer, who broke in and scored on a 3-on-1 break.
It’s been an up and down year for Kassian. A few weeks after helping the Ontario Hockey League Windsor Spitfires win the Memorial Cup in May, Kassian was charged with assault after allegedly punching a man at a bar in Windsor.
The Sabres indefinitely suspended contract talks with Kassian because of the assault. The team remains open to eventually signing Kassian so long as he learns from what happened.
Kassian has expressed regret about the fight. As for making the Sabres, he doesn’t want to look too far ahead.
“You’re going to drive yourself crazy lying in bed if you’re thinking, ‘I need to make the team,'” Kassian said. “I just take it a day at a time.”
NOTES: Jhonas Enroth took over for Miller and stopped 15 shots. … Jussi Rynnas replaced Gustavsson and made 24 saves after allowing Niedermayer’s goal on the first shot he faced. … The Northeast Division rivals meet again at Toronto on Monday as Buffalo enters a busy week in which it will play five games in seven nights.