ST. LOUIS — Talk about a tough spot. Defenseman Jake McCabe made his NHL debut for the Buffalo Sabres here Thursday night. Against the St. Louis Blues, who have been singing a sweet tune all season to get to the top of the Western Conference.
Buffalo’s second-round pick in 2012 seamlessly fit in. Although he couldn’t play the final five minutes of the 2-1 loss in Scottrade Center due to leg cramps, McCabe posted 23 shifts totaling 16 minutes, 20 seconds.
He was strong in his own end, joined the rush a couple of times and seemed right in sync with partner Chad Ruhwedel.
“I think I got better as the game went on,” said McCabe, a 6-foot, 185-pounder. “I felt more comfortable. Early on, I was definitely gripping the stick a little hard. Throughout the game, I had more confidence in my plays, skating abilities and battles.
“It was exciting out there. I realized I could play in this league and I’m not out of place.”
McCabe, 20, decided to forego his senior season at Wisconsin and signed a three-year deal Wednesday, making the rookie max of $925,000 per season.
As expected, McCabe said the last couple days were “a real whirlwind.” When Wisconsin, a top seed, was upset in the NCAA Tournament by North Dakota, McCabe turned his attention to the Sabres.
He flew from Madison to Buffalo through Chicago on Tuesday, took some testing and joined the Sabres on their flight here Wednesday.
“It’s starting to set in now, being out there with the guys and putting on Buffalo gear,” McCabe said. “So it’s definitely exciting. … This is a whole new level of anything I’ve ever been to.”
“I liked him,” said coach Ted Nolan. “He got a little tight at the end, probably nervous, but he played well for his first game. To come into the National Hockey League and playing against arguably one of the best teams in the league, it was a good first impression.”
The Sabres played most of the game a man short after Marcus Foligno left just 1:58 into the contest with what looked like a severe right knee injury following a collision in front of the Blues’ net. Nolan said the injury is “not as ‘bad bad’ as we think” but that Foligno would miss the final six games.
Henrik Tallinder (lower body) and Drew Stafford (undisclosed) also missed this one, and Nolan is pessimistic about Stafford playing tonight, when the Sabres meet the Detroit Red Wings in Joe Louis Arena. A forward may be recalled from Rochester.
It was a good effort by the Sabres against a St. Louis team that’s tied with Boston for the Presidents’ Trophy and won its franchise-record 52nd game. St. Louis got goals from Maxim Lapierre at 1:59 of the second period and Brenden Morrow at 18:08 of the third as Nathan Lieuwen made 26 saves in the Buffalo net.
Cody Hodgson scored on a power play for the Sabres at 19:04 to snap Brian Elliott’s shutout and the Sabres pressed for the equalizer but couldn’t produce it.
McCabe, the franchise-record 44th player to suit up for the Sabres this season, is almost certain to get a long look over the final six games. He was drafted under the Darcy Regier regime, but new General Manager Tim Murray is certainly high on him as well.
“He said, ‘You’re in right away. Be simple, have confidence’ kind of thing and that’s what I’m doing,” McCabe said. “I’m not trying to think too much out there.”
Rochester coach Chadd Cassidy coached McCabe for two years when both were part of the U.S. National Team Development Program.
“I really like Jacob a lot,” Cassidy said after practice Thursday in Rochester. “I thought he was a great pick. He’s a guy that’s got a little bit of offense. He’s very similar to Brayden McNabb. He’s got some offense there, but he also likes the physical game. He likes to get involved and plays the body really well.”
McCabe said he had some long talks with Wisconsin coach and ex-NHLer Mike Eaves about turning pro. The Sabres’ willingness to give him a max contract and NHL spot certainly helped move things along.
“Giving away that senior year was a big, big decision,” he said. “It was an all-around awesome experience and I would suggest to anyone to go the college route.”
McCabe also said he’s felt comfortable with the Sabres since he was drafted. “This is a great organization,” he said. “We’ve been in talks the last couple years. We’ve been in contact. The development camps have been great. This is the place I wanted to go. It’s exciting to finally be here.”
News Sports Reporter John Vogl contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org