PROSPECTS CHALLENGE NOTEBOOK – SEPT. 18 vs. BUFFALO
BUFFALO, N.Y. – The top draft picks in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ pipeline led the way for the Black & Gold to blank the Buffalo Sabres, 3-0, and finish the 2023 Prospects Challenge with a win on Monday evening.
The three highest picks on the Penguins’ roster – first-rounders Sam Poulin (2019) and Brayden Yager (2023), as well as second-round selection Joel Blomqvist (2020) – played starring roles in Pittsburgh’s defeat of the host team.
The Penguins prospects started the contest by flipping the script from their previous two games. This time, Pittsburgh cashed in less than a minute into the game with Poulin showcasing more poise and patience with the puck before launching it past Sabres goalie Scott Ratzlaff.
However, Ratzlaff came up big for the Sabres later in the first period. He made back-to-back breakaway saves on the Penguins in the last two minutes of the frame, keeping his team at a 1-0 deficit heading into intermission.
Ratzlaff had no answer for Yager, as this summer’s 14th overall pick lofted a backhand beauty directly to the top corner at 11:40 of the second period.
Yager’s conversion was one of many opportunities for the Penguins, as they continuously found ways to gain ground on the Sabres’ defense in transition. These scoring chances were the culmination of a series of adjustments that the coaching staff dolled out to the players throughout the event.
“From top to bottom, we gave them some new things to try over the games, some new concepts, different adjustments, and they were able to do it on the fly,” said Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach J.D. Forrest. “I think from a hockey sense standpoint, that says a lot about the players we have in that room.”
Buffalo gradually gained more and more steam as the third period wore on, but Blomqvist came up big with a number of saves in tight. That momentum continued into a late third-period power play, yet it only resulted in more saves for the young netminder the Penguins drafted with the pick they received in the Matt Murray trade.
The Sabres got aggressive (and I mean really aggressive) by pulling their goalie for an extra attacker with more than four minutes left to play in regulation. That only resulted in a slam-dunk empty-net goal for Jagger Joshua.
Blomqvist ultimately finished with 34 saves, shutting out a Sabres squad that had 10 goals in its first two games.
• The format of the six-team Prospects Challenge isn’t necessarily in a “tournament” structure. However, several Penguins were striding about after the game declaring themselves as “Champs”. When asked about it in his postgame press availability, Forrest delivered the line, “That’s what we’re saying,” with his tone dipped in a hint of irony.
The Penguins and Sabres both went 2-1 in their three games, but Pittsburgh would have a head-to-head tiebreaker and finished with a plus-six goal differential.
No trophy was presented to the Penguins.
• Following his eye-catching, physical performance on Saturday, Joshua was promoted to the first line with Poulin and Lukas Svejkovsky. Svejkovsky assisted on Joshua’s game-clinching empty netter.
• Stats Leaders: Both Poulin and Yager led Pittsburgh with two goals at the event, but Yager topped all Penguins with three points. Blomqvist finished five and a half periods of action with a .958 save percentage, 1.32 goals against average and one shutout.
• Yager showed off his defensive acumen once again today, too. Forrest lauded the 18-year-old’s smarts away from the puck after Saturday’s win, saying, “He’s playing both sides of the ice with a level of maturity that you don’t often see with guys coming straight from junior. I think you can see he takes a lot of pride in that up-and-down game and making sure he’s responsible on the defensive side of things.”
Yager is not eligible to play in the American Hockey League until 2025-26.
• The Penguins’ penalty kill went 13-for-15 (86.7%) over its three games at the 2023 Prospects Challenge, including a streak of 10-straight kills.
“We had a bunch of guys [penalty killing],” Forrest said. “I thought (Jordan) Frasca, from the first game to the second game, did a much better job. We had Brayden Yager our there killing, Poulin, Houde, Joshua, I mean we had a bunch of guys taking care of it. And on the defensive side, I thought Jack St. Ivany and Justin Lee did a great job.”
• The PA announcer at HarborCenter would announce Sam Houde’s name as “HOO-day”, as in “Who Dey Think They Gonna Beat Them Bengals?” No word on if this Buffalo native is a sleeper cell Cincinnati Bengals fan.