A standing-room crowd filled the KeyBank Rink at LECOM Harborcenter on Thursday night, with about 2,000 watchful eyes poring over the on-ice action between prospects from the Buffalo Sabres and the Montreal Canadiens. For Sabres fans, Thursday’s game provided a first look at first-round pick Matt Savoie on the ice; for Habs fans, a chance to see first-overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky.
I’m not going to recap every intricate detail of a Prospects Challenge game, but there were certainly some moments - and players - worth highlighting from both sides.
Tyson Kozak was a clear standout on the Buffalo side. After getting hurt in game one of last year’s Prospects Challenge, he had a strong showing at development camp and signed his entry-level deal in late August. Energized by the contract and the opportunity at hand, he scored a pair of goals Thursday and was an offensive presence.
“He just has a presence about him. He has a compete about him. His skill is a transferable skill, because it’s hard skill. It’s not just flash; there’s a lot of substance to his game that we’ve felt every time we’ve been with him. He’s a winning hockey player and I thought he showed that tonight,” said head coach Seth Appert.
Personally, I’m always interested in the player’s point of view. To anyone watching from the stands, Kozak was one who stood out. But how did he see the game? I asked him who he thought stood out among his teammates, and he was quick to point out Matt Savoie, Linus Weissbach and Filip Cederqvist.
Savoie was working hard all night, creating chances all over the ice, including several great scoring opportunities right in front. He was also double-shifting in the third period, playing center on some shifts and wing on others, as he stepped up in the absence of Josh Bloom.
Bloom, for the record, left the game after suffering an apparent shoulder injury. He and a teammate combined for a bodycheck on a Habs player, and Bloom came off worse for wear. He skated off holding his shoulder & didn’t return. Appert called it an ‘upper-body injury’ and said he was day-to-day, noting that since this is just a prospects tournament, you don’t want to risk anything that would affect a player’s regular season. Fair enough - and exactly why you don’t see Jack Quinn or JJ Peterka out there. (See also: Mattias Samuelsson’s injury at the tournament last year.)
Both Buffalo goaltenders played incredibly well. Beck Warm played the first half, and although he allowed two goals, he looked sharp and made a lot of huge saves. Tomas Suchanek came in for the second half - at the beginning of a penalty kill, mind you - and was equally impressive.
From Appert: “Beck was outstanding in the first, even though he gave up two. Tomas was very calm. He looked like he did at the World Juniors, which was, this moment didn’t look too big for him. It didn’t look too big for him there, and it didn’t look too big for him tonight.”
From the other side, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the presence of both Juraj Slafkovsky and Filip Mesar. Slafkovsky looked the part of a first-overall pick. Watching him, his hunger for the puck and vision of the game is evident. When the puck finds his stick, you can’t help but slide forward to the edge of your seat. Mesar is also a clear talent, and having to defend against both of them simultaneously? Oof. Good luck. Appert said it best when asked about Slafkovsky, letting out a knowing sigh that said it all before continuing on:
“As advertised,” Appert said. “I saw him practice, I was like, my gosh. He’s just massive; he has a presence about him. He’s got the square jaw, he looks like a man... He was fantastic. He looked like a number one overall pick.”
At one point, Zach Berzolla took a heavy run at Slafkovsky to take him down in open ice. As Appert noted, most players would’ve crumbled. He literally didn’t move.
The Sabres prospects host the Devils on Saturday at 7 pm.