Eric Comrie delivers promising debut for Sabers in loss

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Eric Comrie didn’t have to wait long Wednesday night to show how he’ll be able to help the Buffalo Sabres.

Less than two minutes into the Sabres’ third preseason game, Comrie tracked the puck during a 2-on-1 and kept himself in position to stop Columbus Blue Jackets center Kent Johnson’s shot from inside. Then, Comrie bailed out his teammates by getting in front of a breakaway shot by Carson Meyer.

This is not the debut the Sabers wanted for Comrie. Backstopping a prospect-laden lineup, the 27-year-old goalie was under siege throughout the first period and received little help at the other end of the ice. The final stat line, 27 saves on 31 shots, in the Sabres’ 4-1 loss to the Blue Jackets inside Nationwide Arena doesn’t tell the full story, though.

“He’s been lights out in practice and through training camp,” said defenseman Jacob Bryson. “I was expecting him to play well and he did. He kept us there for most of the game, and a lot of those goals were our fault.”

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Comrie’s poise and precise positioning in the net ensured the Sabers had a chance to mount a comeback. The Sabers (2-1) trailed 2-0 following a first period in which they were outshot 13-2 and mustered only seven shot attempts compared to Columbus’ 20. They couldn’t cleanly break the puck out of the defensive zone and allowed Columbus to control play.

There will be similar moments of adversity this season given the Sabers’ youth, and in recent seasons, they rarely had a goalie capable of stealing a win. But Comrie showed that potential against a Columbus roster that included NHL regulars like Jakub Voracek, Jack Roslovic, Emil Bemstrom and Johnson.

Comrie had to withstand the barrage while the Sabers tried to find time and space against the Blue Jackets’ suffocating forecheck.

He tracked Sean Kuraly carrying the puck around the net and stopped the ensuing backhanded shot. Johnson, a teammate of Owen Power’s at the University of Michigan, then earned a breakaway by skating around Isak Rosen, but Comrie was there to make the save.

“We knew they were going to come out hard and fast,” said Comrie. “For myself, I just tried to weather the storm as long as I could.”

The Blue Jackets needed a remarkable passing game to break through. Defenseman Stanislav Svozil sent a one-touch pass from the right circle to the far post, where Emil Bemstrom was alone and one-timed the shot in for a 1-0 lead. Comrie’s lone blemish occurred when he didn’t get his glove up to stop Kirill Marchenko’s shot on the power play, which made it 2-0.

“It’s just getting your feet under you then,” Comrie said of the first preseason games. “Getting used to the pace. I know for myself, every year it takes me one or two games to get used to it. It was good to get back out there and a lot of fun to play that game.”

Sabers defenseman Chase Priskie scored their only goal, and Comrie kept the deficit at one until 7:58 into the third period when Voracek tucked a backhanded shot in on a breakaway. Meyer added another goal when he got behind the Sabers with Columbus shorthanded.

“He looked calm and confident, and you can only be that when you read shooters well,” Sabers coach Don Granato said of Comrie. “That’s experience. He showed experience and it’s very nice to see that. We had lots of young guys in the game. It was a little bit of a barrage early we had to adapt to and adjust.”

Before the Sabers gave Comrie a two-year contract with a $1.8 million annual cap hit, they studied his play in 19 games with Winnipeg last season. He totaled an impressive .920 and 10-5-1 record as the backup to Connor Hellebuyck. But the club also looked at Comrie’s production in the American Hockey League, where he played 207 regular-season games and, when starting, produced like a top-tier prospect.

Given the short NHL track record, and how unfamiliar most Sabers fans are with the 2013 second-round draft pick, it’s an encouraging start for Comrie, who was targeted by General Manager Kevyn Adams to help in goal until either Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen or Devon Levi is ready for the NHL. Eventually, Comrie will work in tandem with Luukkonen.

Comrie still needs to win the starting job over Craig Anderson, who, at 41 years old, remains determined to be in the crease every night. Three preseason games remain. Comrie, though, showed that he has the poise to handle difficult moments in games where his teammates need time to find their game.

“To be honest, I have nerves every game,” said Comrie. “I have nerves because I love the game and I want to be good every single game, especially when you’re making a first impression with a new team.”

Here are other observations from the game:

Priskie had another solid game from the blue line, finishing with 19:08 of ice time and showing a willingness to join the play in the offensive zone. On his goal, the 26-year-old left the right point when space opened in front of the net and scored on a behind-the-goal pass by Jack Quinn to make it 2-1 at 3:49 into the second period.

The Sabers were wise to add experienced two-way defensemen like Priskie, Lawrence Pilut, Kale Clage and Jeremy Davies. NHL teams need eight-to-10 capable defensemen, and those signings will help with the development of the young forwards in Rochester. Priskie, a standout for Charlotte in the AHL last season, has a right-handed shot and excels when breaking the puck out of his own zone.

“That’s kind of my bread and butter,” Priskie said of chipping on offense. “As much offensively that I want to bring to the table, I want to be as good defensively. My worry is to just continue to show them that I can defend at this level consistently and be a producer. I know my game will take care of himself from the offensive zone.”

Quinn and JJ Peterka continued to state their case to be on the opening-night roster. Quinn made the nice play behind the net on Priskie’s goal and looked assertive when carrying the puck. The winger also checked well and showed poise on the power play. His playmaking was on display throughout the final two periods. He finished with a team-high four shots on goal in 18:00 of ice time.

Peterka, meanwhile, earned a breakaway that was stopped by goalie Jet Greaves, but he got beat to the net on the Blue Jackets’ fourth goal. Jiri Kulich also had some quality scoring chances, none better than his shot from the slot in the second period.

Linus Weissbach will be ready to help in the NHL when the call comes. He made that clear with his performance the past two weeks, even when playing both games of the back-to-back. Weissbach generated the Sabres’ only scoring chances during the ugly first period Weissbach, 24, has the speed, vision and reliable two-way game Granato wants in young players.

With a prospects-laden lineup, the Sabers’ forward lines were Aleksander Kisakov centered by Peyton Krebs with JJ Peterka at right wing; Brandon Biro centered Jack Quinn and Victor Olofsson; Tyson Kozak was between Anders Bjork and Linus Weissbach; and Jiri Kulich played center next to Filip Cederqvist and Isak Rosen.

On defense, Jacob Bryson was paired with Casey Fitzgerald; Kale Clague skated with Chase Priskie; and Peter Tischke was on the left side next to Oskari Laaksonen.

The Sabers host the Pittsburgh Penguins in KeyBank Center on Saturday at 1 pm, followed by the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday at 7 pm.

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