DETROIT – Zemgus Girgensons made the most of his NHL debut, scoring the first goal of his career in the third period Wednesday to bring the Buffalo Sabres within one goal of the Detroit Red Wings.
The Red Wings, however, skated away with a 2-1 victory at Joe Louis Arena. Mikael Samuelsson and Pavel Datsyuk scored 36 seconds apart in the first period and Jimmy Howard made 19 saves in the first game of the season for both clubs.
“It definitely would be a better moment if we won, but it’s still my first NHL goal so I’ll just take the best out of it that I can,” Girgensons said.
Buffalo’s power play went 0-for-7 on the night and failed to convert on two separate 5-on-3 opportunities.
“I blame it on execution of our power play and that’s our veteran guys. We know that we’re going to have to lead the team, especially the power-play guys,” Sabres co-captain Steve Ott said. “Tonight it definitely could’ve been a difference maker for our squad and it wasn’t. In low-scoring games, in a 2-1 game, those are the ones that win you games.”
The Sabres had their first two-man advantage for 1:31 about four minutes into the game. Their second 5-on-3 lasted 51 seconds and came late in the second period.
Sabres co-captain Thomas Vanek said the team’s puck movement was a big reason as to why they couldn’t capitalize on their chances.
“I think we weren’t sharp on our passes which is too bad,” he said. “Again, 5-on-3s, I think we worked hard to get the penalties […] but we didn’t move the puck well.”
The Sabres had seven shots in 11:36 of power-play time. Two of those shots came when Buffalo was up two skaters. Coach Ron Rolston would’ve liked to have seen more players put the puck on net.
“We don’t shoot. You don’t shoot, you don’t score goals. It doesn’t get to the goaltender,” Rolston said.
Ryan Miller made 32 saves for Buffalo. He stopped Cory Emmerton on a penalty shot that the Red Wings forward drew while shorthanded with 7:41 to play in the second period. With the save on Emmerton's attempt, Miller improved to 14-for-16 on penalty shots in his career.
The Sabres were hoping to secure their first win at Detroit since their 3-2 shootout victory on Oct. 13, 2006. The Sabres haven’t won a game at Detroit in regulation since March 10, 2002 when they came away with a 5-1 victory.
Buffalo will face Detroit three more times this season as they are now divisional rivals.
“It wasn’t a game that got away from us. It was a game we definitely were in,” Miller said. “We could’ve tied it up and if we play that kind of hockey all year against good hockey teams, we’re going to be on the winning side of some of those.
“And if we’re on the losing side, we’re going to have a chance to come back and that’s something good to see. Now we just have to show that we can come back and we’ve got a knack for a little bit of the dramatic at the end.”
Detroit got out in front shortly after their first 5-on-3 kill.
With 7:55 to play in the first, Samuelsson opened the scoring, deflecting in a pass out of the air from Emmerton while on the rush. Emmerton skated in down the right wing and threw a pass out the front of the net. Samuelsson deflected the pass on his backhand.
Then, as defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, who was also playing in his first NHL game, tried to clear the puck up the boards, Datsyuk took it away at the left point to set up Detroit’s second goal. He worked his way to the front of the net and lifted a backhand over Miller for his first goal of the season
Girgensons’ goal came with 7:24 left in the third period and came as a result of a play he started. He rifled in a hard dump in along the left wing and Sabres forward Brian Flynn chased it down from the right wing. As Howard tried to clear it out toward Flynn, the puck deflected off Flynn and out in front of the net. Girgensons, skating through the slot, lifted a backhand up and into the unprotected goal.
“[Flynn] just made a great steal on the wall and I got a lucky bounce in front of the net,” Girgensons said. “I just backhanded it into the top shelf.”
He had expected his family from Latvia to be in attendance, but they did not make it to Detroit in time. His girlfriend, however, was able to watch the game from the stands.
"I only had my girlfriend to see it but it was still a special moment for me,” he said.
Girgensons, now 19, was the second-youngest player in the American Hockey League when he started his professional career last season. Scoring a goal in his NHL debut is another milestone that he’s reached relatively quickly.
“Everything has happened so quick for me,” he said. “Three years ago, I was in juniors in Vermont and I was just looking up to these guys that were on the ice. Now you see I’m next to them and I’m battling with them and I’m trying to score on those goalies, so it’s a special moment.”
In addition to Girgensons and Ristolainen, 18, the Sabres lineup featured another teenager in 19-year-old center Mikhail Grigorenko. Other young players included Mark Pysyk and Brian Flynn, who played in their first NHL games last season.
“I liked our young guys tonight and they’ll get better,” Rolston said. “It’s a good experience for them tonight here to play a team like that with the speed that [the Red Wings] have. So they’ll gain experience.”