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Sabres prospect Nylander calls himself out after 'really bad game' in WJC quarterfinal

Alex Nylander was expected to be one of Sweden's most dominant players in the World Junior Championship, but the Sabres prospect has failed to make a major impact. That includes Tuesday's quarterfinal win over Slovakia.

BUFFALO - It’s far too early to write off Alex Nylander. But right about now might be a good time to start wondering a little about him. Like his country in the World Junior Championship over the years, Nylander has been something of a disappointment since turning pro and after two outstanding World Junior Championships, it’s not as though he’s been bad this year. It’s just that in his third WJC, you’d expect a little more dominance from him.

Case in point was Sweden’s 3-2 win over Slovakia in the quarterfinal Tuesday night, a win that put them in the semifinal for the 11th straight year. Playing on Sweden’s top line with an injured Lias Andersson and Elias Pettersson, Nylander was very, very quiet. Even by his own admission, he could have been much, much better.

“We have to step it up, my line and myself,” Nylander said after the game. “I had a really bad game, which is unacceptable. I have to step it up a lot more next game. I’ve got to play a lot better. I wasn’t moving my feet and create more plays and use the stuff I’m good at, trying to get shots at the net and working hard. I’ve got to work harder.”

Those are not terribly encouraging words to hear, particularly for Buffalo Sabres fans. If arguably the best player on one of the best teams can’t find it in himself to have an extra gear in such an important game, that should be setting off some alarm bells. The good news is Nylander still has two games to make things right and if he responds positively to calling himself out, he’ll make a lot of people forget his performance in the quarterfinal.

This was a Swedish team that looked as though it thought it could simply win on skill against a big and aggressive opponent and it almost blew up in their faces. It’s clear Andersson, a first-round pick of the New York Rangers in 2017, is limited by a shoulder injury. It was his decision to play and Swedish coach Tomas Monten defended his captain’s participation in the game. That top line was almost non-existent, with the difference makers being the team’s second- and third-liners, who were not content to play on the periphery.

Monten agreed the quarterfinal was not Nylander’s best game, but said he had been better until that point in the tournament and expects him to pick up his game in the semifinal. “Today he tried and he worked,” Monten said, “but in the games before, I think he’s been really good. It feels like he’s grown a lot. Before this game, he was a player you could play in most situations. Not a great game today, but he’s going to be back at it next game.”

Nylander missed the first month of the season with a groin/hamstring injury during the Sabres’ rookie tournament. That has undoubtedly slowed his progress somewhat, but there are some concerning signs. After being taken eighth overall by the Sabres in 2016, much was expected. In his first pro season in the American League, he scored just 28 points in 65 games and had the worst plus-minus mark on the Rochester Americans. So far he has played only four games with Sabres, all at the end of last season, registering one assist.

“I think it’s coming back right now,” Nylander said. “I’m trying to get my game back. It’s coming with this tournament, but there’s more that I can do.”

He and his linemates will have to do just that if Sweden is to avoid what is almost an annual disappointment in the semifinal game against USA. Despite going a mind-boggling 44-0 in the preliminary games in the past 11 tournaments (including this year), the Swedes have won just four of the past 10 semifinals and haven’t medalled for the past three.

“I think the style of the game (was one where) they couldn’t get the space and time to be creative,” Monten said of his top line. “And of course we had to shift it around with Lias on the faceoffs. They can’t win every game for us, but hopefully they’ll get back the next game.”

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