By Chris Ryndak – Sabres.com (@chrisryndak)
Three Buffalo Sabres made their NHL debuts Friday night in Buffalo’s final home game of the regular season, but it didn’t end quite the way they wanted.
Jason Kasdorf, Cole Schneider and Evan Rodrigues all received their first tastes of NHL action in Buffalo’s 4-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets at First Niagara Center. Excluding season-openers, the Sabres have never before had three or more players make their NHL debuts in the same game, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Kasdorf was tested often early on, facing 14 shots in the first period. He ended up stopping 27 of 30 Columbus shots in his first-ever start.
Schneider, a Williamsville, N.Y. native, joined the organization after a seven-player trade with Ottawa was made in February. He finished his debut with two shots in 12:54 of ice time.
Rodrigues spent his first professional season in Rochester, where he put up nine goals and 28 points in 68 games. He recorded a hit and a shot on goal in his first shift, ending up with five shots in 10:10.
“I thought they both looked pretty good,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “Cole looked comfortable with the pace and making plays and made a couple of good ones, had a couple good opportunities around the net.
“And I thought Evan, we talked a little bit about what he did in Training Camp to turn eyes and be on pucks, be a hound, be tenacious. And I thought he was every bit of that tonight. He had some great opportunities in the third there.”
A few turnovers and missed opportunities ultimately cost Buffalo the game.
“It was unfortunate. Right when we started to get something going, a bounce would take it away from us. But we can’t be affected by that,” Ryan O’Reilly said. “There are still a lot of things we could’ve done better tonight and we’re disappointed. That’s not the way we wanted to go out in this building. We have a chance tomorrow to bounce back and end the season on the right note.”
Buffalo fell down 1-0 after one when Matt Calvert beat Kasdorf with a wrist shot in off the far post from the left faceoff circle with just 1:15 remaining in the period.
The Sabres opened the second period with four power plays and finally converted just after the first penalty on a 5-on-3 advantage expired.
At the point, O’Reilly dished it to Matt Moulson to the right of the net and Moulson calmly sent it right to Eichel at the top of the faceoff circle. Eichel one-timed a hard, low pass on goal and Reinhart, parked in front of the net, squared up to the pass and reached back to deflect it past Joonas Korpisalo for his 23rd goal of the season with 6:23 left in the second.
However, the Blue Jackets took the lead back 1:39 later when Boone Jenner pounced on a loose puck in the Buffalo zone and dished it to Nick Foligno, who put Columbus ahead for good. Then, with 2:35 left in the second, Columbus took a 3-1 lead on the rush when Dalton Prout wristed one in.
Buffalo outshot the Blue Jackets 18-6 in the second period, but went into the locker room down by two.
“We gave them some opportunities for them – especially the second and third ones were golden opportunities that [Kasdorf] wasn’t able to stop,” Bylsma said. “I thought in the first period, with the first  shots he faced, I don’t know if he was ever able to get comfortable in net.”
Columbus scored again when Saad fired home a one-timer in the slot from a behind-the-net pass by Alexander Wennberg to go up 4-1.
Zach Bogosian took a solid hit from Saad as he tried to carry the puck up from behind his own net 7:35 into the game, played one more shift and did not return to the game due to a lower-body injury.
Bogosian will not travel with the team for their final game on Saturday against the Islanders.
Bylsma said a few other players are battling some bumps and bruises and it’s possible there could be a few lineup changes for Game 82.
Before the Buffalo Sabres final home game of the 2015-16 season, some hardware needed to be handed out.
The winners of the annual team awards were announced with Ryan O’Reilly winning Most Valuable Player presented by Labatt Blue, Jack Eichel taking home Rookie of the Year presented by BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York, Chad Johnson being named Unsung Hero presented by Fallsview Casino Resort and Marcus Foligno earning the inaugural Sabres Foundation Man of the Year Award presented by Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
The awards were voted on by the players.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: RYAN O’REILLY
O’Reilly’s influence on the organization in his first season has been great. He leads the team in assists (38) and points (59) in 70 games played this year. He has 21 goals and entering Friday’s game, led all NHL forwards in average ice time at 21:47. He missed 11 games due to a lower-body injury but returned with 10 points (4+6) in the 11 games since.
“As soon as he came in, he was kind of the guy that when he did something, people kind of followed,” Reinhart said. “Personally, he’s helped me a lot throughout the year and I just see him getting better and better and more of a leader on this team each and every day.”
O’Reilly took great proud in receiving the honor.
“Those are the guys you go to war with every night and to be recognized like that from them, it’s definitely a great feeling and definitely appreciated,” he said.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: JACK EICHEL
Eichel, the second-overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, started the season off with a bang, scoring a power-play goal in his first NHL game.
In 80 games so far this year, Eichel has amassed 55 points (24+32). He ranks in the Top 5 among NHL rookies in goals (2nd), assists (4th), points (2nd) and shots on goal (1st with 235).
He’s been part of a great rookie tandem with Reinhart. With 41 points on the year for Reinhart, they’ve become the first pair of Sabres rookies to reach the 35-point mark in 28 years and just the third pair of rookies in franchise history to each record 20 goals in a season.
UNSUNG HERO: CHAD JOHNSON
Johnson was thrust between the pipes just 27:30 into the first game of the season when Robin Lehner had to leave the game with a high-ankle sprain. Since then, he’s put up strong numbers: a 22-16-4 record (with the 22 wins being a career high), a .920 save percentage and a 2.36 goals-against average in 45 games.
He’s 10-2-1 in his last 14 appearances with a .924 save percentage and a 2.21 goals-against average. The Sabres finished the month of March 7-4-4 and Johnson was a big part of that, winning six games.
“All those awards, they’re voted on by their peers – every one of them is deserving and Johnny, he’s had a great year,” captain Brian Gionta said. “Twenty-plus wins, he played extremely well for us. Without him, it would’ve been a much longer year for us.”
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma has been quick to praise Johnson’s calm, cool demeanor in net and that attitude has mirrored his steady play. Of course, there have also been some frantic, highlight-reel saves sprinkled in for good measure.
SABRES FOUNDATION MAN OF THE YEAR: MARCUS FOLIGNO
Foligno was recognized for his charitable efforts this season, which included the sale of “Marcus Moose” plush toys that benefited SABAH. Foligno was also involved in various other community events throughout the year.
Giving back to the community runs in the family. His brother Nick, the Blue Jackets captain, was Columbus’ Community MVP last season and they’re both very much involved with the Janis Foligno Foundation, which was created in honor of their mother. Janis Foligno passed away after a courageous battle with breast cancer in 2009.
ONE TO GO
The Sabres hit the road after Friday’s game for their final contest of the year. They’ll take on the New York Islanders on Saturday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn at 7:30 p.m. The game can be seen on MSG-B and Bell TV and heard live on WGR 550.
Stay tuned to Sabres.com throughout the day for full coverage.
(Reprinted with permission of the Buffalo Sabres)