Mattias Samuelsson took the ice for the opening faceoff on Wednesday, matched up against the Pittsburgh Penguins’ top forward line centered by Sidney Crosby.
It was at once a foreshadowing moment and a reminder of how far Samuelsson has cpme in the 11 months since he made his NHL debut against Pittsburgh last April. He shared the ice with Crosby for just over two minutes that night.
“My debut was definitely a lot of nerves and overwhelming to be on the ice with those guys,” he said. “And now playing a handful of games and playing against top guys on every team, I think I’ve proven to myself I could do it and proved to the coaching staff I can handle it.”
Video: AFTER PRACTICE: Samuelsson
Samuelsson was Crosby’s primary matchup during Buffalo’s shootout win over Pittsburgh on Wednesday. The Sabres held a 7-4 advantage in shot attempts in 9:04 when Samuelsson and Crosby shared the ice at 5-on-5. Samuelsson finished the night with an assist and a plus-3 rating.
The performance was yet another example of why Sabres coach Don Granato lauds the 22-year-old as a major piece of the team’s future, even on a defense corps that could soon feature a pair of No. 1 overall picks in Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power.
“He has taken a lot of pressure off our defense because he has been so effective,” Granato said Wednesday. “He can be a No. 1 penalty killer, we can throw him over the boards first, he covers a lot of shot to be blocked, he covers a range of pucks near his quadrant.
“So, he is a big difference in how our team has played. He’s been a stabilizer killing plays quicker, transitioning plays quicker. He’s a big part of why we’ve been able to be better and better as we’ve moved along through the season.”
Samuelsson had exceeded 20 minutes in four straight contests prior to Wednesday, when he finished with 18:42. That run coincides with a stretch in which the Sabres have won four of five games.
He uses his 6-foot-4 frame in eye-catching ways, such as when he knocked Matthew Tkachuk off the puck during Buffalo’s win in Calgary last Wednesday or when he uses his reach to strip offensively gifted players on the rush, as he did against Mitchell Marner in the Heritage Classic.
“Have you seen his stick? It’s like a cobra,” Dahlin said. “He’s amazing, you know? He makes great plays out there. Even defensively, such a big, strong guy and like I said, great stick. … He’s gonna be a huge part of this team for a really long time, I hope. He’s doing a great job, for sure.”
Video: AFTER PRACTICE: Dahlin
The combination of his size and ability to close on players and kill plays is what Granato says sets him apart from other towering defensemen.
“We’ve talked about how athletically gifted he is to close on a guy and read plays,” Granato said. “He’s probably our best defender in that area against skilled guys. He has such a massive range and can close on a guy deceptively quick. Players are not used to somebody that big moving that athletically.”
He’s shown a willingness to add offense, too. Samuelsson held the puck behind the Pittsburgh net prior to setting up a Tage Thompson goal on Wednesday.
Samuelsson’s early success is part of a pattern he has followed throughout his development. He earned a spot on Team USA’s World Junior roster as an underage player in 2019 and then captained the team the following year. He had the rare distinction as serving as a team captain for Western Michigan as a sophomore, in his final collegiate season before turning pro.
It took less than a year in Rochester before he earned a 12-game stint with Buffalo to end last season. He was a prime candidate to earn an NHL roster spot in the fall until an injury ended his camp before it began. Instead, he made his season debut for the Sabres on Jan. 17. He may be here to stay.
“I’m looking forward to gaining as many games as possible up here, gaining more experience and getting better every day,” he said.
John Hayden remained absent and is still in COVID-19 protocol, Granato said.
Here’s how the Sabres lined up ahead of their home game against Washington on Friday: