By Bill Hoppe
T.J. Brennan’s older sister, Courtney, called him earlier this week. When the Sabres rookie picked up the phone, she told her brother some special news.
“She was like, ‘I got engaged,’” the defenseman recalled Thursday inside the First Niagara Center after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s tilt in Columbus against the Blue Jackets.
Brennan, being the nice brother, didn’t want to steal her thunder. He couldn’t quite help himself, though.
“I was like, ‘I think I have better news. I got called up,’” said Brennan, who scored in his NHL debut Wednesday, a 4-3 shootout loss to Boston. “So it was kind of funny. But I was really happy for her.”
It’s been a whirlwind week for the Brennan clan. The family – his father, mother, younger brother and three older sisters – had planned to join him in Rochester for Thanksgiving. Instead, when the Sabres summoned the 22-year-old Monday after Tyler Myers broke his wrist, they moved the meal to Buffalo.
“It’s been a pretty high week, I guess I would say,” Brennan said. “It’s exciting.”
His parents and one sister made it to the FNC, and they watched one of the best debuts by a Sabres defender in a long time. Brennan scored 11:02 into the second period, converting a deflected Derek Roy pass in the right circle.
Who was the last Sabres defenseman to score in his first NHL game? Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, who tallied into an empty net against Washington on Oct. 11, 1979.
“I should’ve kept him off the ice so I had that record for myself, I guess,” Ruff joked.
Ruff said Brennan also scored into an empty cage.
“The goalie (Tim Thomas) wasn’t in when he shot it,” Ruff joked again. “It just tells you how important it was when I was out there as a rookie with an empty net.”
When the puck went in, Brennan said he thought it “was too good to be true.”
“It was crazy. It was exciting,” he said. “I think the part I started remembering was I just kind of turned around and (Thomas) Vanek was coming at me skating. I saw (Marc-Andre Gragnani) sprinting to get the puck.”
Naturally, scoring gave Brennan that “extra confidence.”
“It helps me believe in myself a little more, that I can stick around here,” said Brennan, who should stay around with Myers and Mike Weber (upper body) out.
Brennan, who wore No. 33, played 13:07 against the Bruins, mostly beside Gragnani, his AHL partner last season in Portland.
“Grags is awesome. I can’t say enough about that guy,” Brennan said. “He really helped me last year. … He just helped me a lot (Wednesday), made it a lot easier.”
With a lot of penalties early, it was hard for Brennan to get in the flow.
“Anytime you play your first few games there’s a little bit of nerves,” Ruff said. “With most players, it was a tough game the way it started. He didn’t get a lot of ice. But when he did play, I thought he made a lot of good decisions.”
Brennan added: “I thought I was pretty solid defensively. I tried to keep it really simple, just keep the puck out of my net. I think we did a good job there. It was a plus to get a plus (rating) and a goal.”
The American hasn’t had an easy road to the NHL. Growing up on the New Jersey side of suburban Philadelphia, he was offered lacrosse scholarships and almost went undiscovered in hockey.
Eventually, though, he made it to the QMJHL. Then, the Sabres selected Brennan 31st in 2007, the pick the Flyers traded them for goalie Martin Biron. Brennan steadily improved in the AHL. Last season, he had 15 goals and 39 points.
“He’s come a long ways as a young defenseman,” Ruff said. “It’s a great thrill to get your first NHL goal. He’s battled hard to get to this point. You like to see your draft picks – you work with them, you develop them – you like to see them play. You like to see them rewarded for all the hard work they put in.
“It’s not an easy road. It hasn’t been an easy road for him, and it won’t be an easy road for the next guy.”
With only 11 healthy forwards, the Sabres recalled rookie winger Zack Kassian from Rochester on Thursday night. The 20-year-old should make his NHL debut tonight.
Kassian, the 13th pick in 2009, has a team-leading seven goals and 14 points in 18 games.
Ruff had no update on forward Brad Boyes, whose ironman streak ended at 513 consecutive games when he suffered an apparent ankle injury in the first period Wednesday. The coach said Boyes will be out “a period of time.”
“It’ll take a little time to figure out exactly how long it’s going to be,” Ruff said.
Meanwhile, winger Patrick Kaleta (lower body) didn’t skate Thursday and will likely miss his second straight game.
Winger Tyler Ennis (ankle sprain, 14 games) practiced on a line but is likely out tonight. Some recent rest helped him.
“Still got a little work to do with it,” Ennis said. “You got to be patient.”
Also, Weber (three games) has been practicing in a limited fashion. Ruff said Weber’s timeline, which he pegged at weeks, hasn’t become “days yet.”
A slew of things — the Sabres’ tepid response to Milan Lucic’s hit on goalie Ryan Miller, their 4-6-1 home record, Miller and Myers’ poor play, little impact from their free agents and some other struggles — have overshadowed a pretty nice 12-8-1 record a quarter into the season.
With 25 points, they’re just a point off the Northeast Division lead. Four NHL teams have one more win than the Sabres.
“We’re under the microscope just a little bit more with all the changes – all the new facilities here, the new ownership,” Sabres winger Drew Stafford. “People expect greatness right away. We expect that, too. We believe in here that we can have a championship. We’re going to be heavily scrutinized every game, every decision we make.”
Imagine if the Sabres get healthy and more players start performing like they’re expected.
“For us to have the kind of success we’ve had so far, you look at some of the bodies that are out right now, we haven’t played our best hockey, at least consistently,” Stafford said. “We’re still managing to get wins. Once we get playing on all cylinders it should be pretty good.”
Sabres center Jochen Hecht, out since suffering a concussion early in training camp, made his season debut Wednesday, skating 18:15 on the No. 1 line between Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville.
Why such a plum assignment so soon?
“I knew I’d have to play him against the top line, and I knew Jochen could skate with them and defend with anybody,” Ruff said. “I thought he had a hell of a game for us. It was a big reason we were able to play with the (Patrice) Bergeron line and play with the (David) Krejci line.
“He can hang onto the puck, which makes a difference, and there’s always been a great relationship between him and Pommer. They like playing together. (It’s) a little bit of they know where each other’s going to be.”