Sabres preseason observations: Zach Benson shines, Brandon Biro leaves an impression

BUFFALO, N.Y. — On Saturday afternoon, Brandon Biro provided a reminder of just how much preseason games can mean.

The building was half empty and the 4-3 win the Sabres got over the Blue Jackets won’t count for anything in the standings, but this game mattered to Biro, who is fighting for a spot on Buffalo’s roster. In the first period, Dylan Cozens ripped a shot toward the net and it hit Biro in the face. Blood spilled on the ice as trainers quickly took Biro to the locker room. It looked like his strong preseason run might end there.

But the 25-year-old Biro knows every shift matters. So he went to the locker room, got stitches above his lip and inside his mouth, had the training staff fasten a full shield onto his helmet and then he finished the game.

“At this point in my career, you never really know how many chances you’re going to get or how many opportunities you’re going to have,” Biro said. “I think I would have come back regardless, but obviously with the stakes what they are, I made sure I did everything I possibly could to get back.”

Biro played 8:46 on a line with Dylan Cozens and Alex Tuch. The Sabres had 73 percent of the shot attempts when Biro was on the ice. He has a goal and two assists in four games played this preseason game. Biro would have to pass through waivers to go back to the AHL. That he got back on the ice Saturday was just the latest quality he showed the Sabres’ coaching staff.

“You know him,” Granato said. “You know his reputation. If it wasn’t the doctor keeping him out of the game, you knew he was going to be back. That’s his character. He played very well upon return even with a full face shield on. Nice to see him back but a bummer that he’s cut up the way he is that’s for sure.”

Here’s what else we learned from Buffalo’s preseason win over Columbus.

1. Zach Benson again played on a line with Tage Thompson and Jeff Skinner. Again he got to play the bumper on the top power play with with those two. And again, he found his way onto the stat sheet, this time with an assist on the game-tying goal and by scoring what would be the game-winning goal in the third period.

This might have been Benson’s most impressive game of the preseason because of the early adversity he and the team needed to battle through. Benson was pushed off the puck a few times early and his line was on the ice for all three of the Blue Jackets’ goals. This was a Columbus lineup that featured quite a few NHLers, including Patrick Laine, who scored a pair of goals.

“You don’t want to get dashed up ever, but I thought we did a good job as a line just to kind of put it in the past,” Benson said. “We knew we weren’t at our best, and I thought after that we started pushing, playing in the O-zone. Like I said, we started wearing them and that eventually led to power plays.”

Benson’s play on the go-ahead goal was one that should stick with the Sabres’ decision-makers. It wasn’t a pretty skill play. He just crashed the net and got off the best shot he could from an odd position and it found the back of the net.

“You try to coach and help players develop that as much as you can,” Granato said. “The best players do things naturally. … The common term is ‘hockey sense,’ feel for situations, a knack and an ability to consistently be in the right positions at the right time. He can strip pucks and steal pucks as good as anybody. In the short time watching him, that was his M.O. prior to the draft. He’s been able to show that and imprint that here and just has shown that he’s very smart and elusive. I think he’s one of those guys that maybe if he’s 5-11 or he’s 6 foot, he’s easier to grab, but he can sneak between coverage areas and he takes advantage of the size he is extremely well.”

Right now, Benson looks like a player who can help the Sabres win, even as an 18-year-old. He has another week to prove that.

2. Late in the second period, Dylan Cozens’ frustration came out with the Sabres trailing 3-0. First he took a slashing penalty on Adam Fantilli. Then when he was back on the ice, Dmitri Voronkov bumped into Sabres goalie Devon Levi after the whistle. Levi provided a bit of salesmanship while falling to the ice. Even if it wasn’t the most egregious offense, Cozens wasn’t going to let it slide. He immediately skated over and started what became a team-wide skirmish. Cozens got the only penalty, but Granato loved the message it sent.

“We should be emotional,” Granato said. “It’s our building, it’s a situation we don’t like.”

3. Henri Jokiharju had his second goal of the preseason, taking a pass from Victor Olofsson and showing off a quick release getting the puck behind the goalie. Granato said he challenged Jokiharju to be more assertive in all areas of the game, and that’s shown up in the offensive zone on multiple occasions during the preseason. He was the only one of Buffalo’s current top-six defensemen who played in this game. When Jokiharju was on the ice at five-on-five, the Sabres had nine scoring chances and only allowed three, according to Natural Stat Trick. He also got some power play time with the top unit. The Sabres may not lean on him as much as they did last season, but an improved season from him would be a nice boost to their blue line.

4. Peyton Krebs is growing into his role as a defensive forward. We saw that evolution begin to take place last season, but he’s showing signs of embracing it fully this season. He played between Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo last season, so it was encouraging to see him be the leader for his line at times this preseason. On Saturday, he was between Lukas Rousek and Victor Olofsson for most of the game and the Sabres allowed only one scoring chance at five-on-five when Krebs was out there. That line led the team with an expected goal share of 78 percent at five-on-five, according to Natural Stat Trick.

5. Jiri Kulich and Isak Rosen haven’t found a way to get rolling this preseason. They played on a line together with Kyle Okposo on Saturday but found themselves on the wrong side of the scoring chances more often than not again. When Kulich is on the ice at five-on-five this preseason, the Sabres are allowed 70 percent of the shot attempts. The same is true for Rosen. They’re both likely to be among Rochester’s top scorers this season and could play their way into a call-up. But neither has done anything to join the conversation for one of Buffalo’s final roster spots at this point.

(Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig / USA Today)

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