Mikhail Grigorenko is not faster than the last time we saw him. He did not throw opposing players into the wall like Hulk Hogan at the beginning of Rocky III. He did not drop the gloves or dive in front of a 90 mph slap shot. But, in his first night as a Rochester American, he looked more competitive, more confident and more dynamic than the last time he played professional hockey.
Oh, and he made some filthy moves with the puck.
The former Sabres first-round draft pick opened his first shift by creating a 2-on-1 and firing a high blocker shot on Syracuse goaltender Kasters Gudlevskis.
His first two periods in the Amerks' 5-2 win over the Crunch included two shots on goal, a plus-10 Corsi number (shot attempts vs. opponents shot attempts), two faceoff wins, a drawn penalty and some time on the first power play unit.
It was a pretty solid start for a guy who has been playing against kids with the Quebec Ramparts for the second half of the season.
Then it happened.
The moment that, when you buy your ticket to the game, you hope is coming. The one flash of elite skill. The play that makes you believe he can be something special.
Three minutes into the third period, Grigorenko turned a routine zone entry into a beautiful 2-on-1, which he turned into a tape-to-tape, one-timer goal for Frederick Roy.
The Sabres' 2012 top pick crossed over a Syracuse defender like Allen Iverson on Tyronn Lou. Then when he found himself in the clear, the Amerks' center slowed down, ripped a pass to his linemate who slapped it in the empty net.
Fans were talking about it on their way out.
“I thought he was really good,” head coach Chadd Cassidy said. “He was positionally really sound, he looked like he was comfortable playing the way that we wanted him to play, he was moving his feet all night and he was really good with his loose puck battles.”
Grigorenko ended the night with a plus-7 Corsi number, which could be attributed in part to those battles. Multiple times opponents tried to escape with the puck, but he used his long reach to grab it back. The 6-foot-4 center also made several strong passes out of his defensive zone to spring his teammates through the neutral zone.
One of the main directives from the Sabres' front office, Tim Murray said on WGR, was that he do the things defensively and from a competitive standpoint that the team will need for him to succeed long term. Grigorenko said he felt like those aspects of his game were there on Wednesday night.
“(Syracuse) didn't really create much offensively when we were out there,” he said. “I think we did pretty good defensively and in winning battles. It was pretty easy to play with the defenseman we have on our team here.”
Grigorenko finished the night with an assist, plus-1 and two shots on goal. His coach said there was a stark contrast between Wednesday night and what he saw in the two playoff games for Rochester last season.
“It was a difficult situation he came into last year,” Cassidy said. “He seemed to feel comfortable coming in here. He was a different player tonight.”
What does this mean for the Sabres' top forward prospect? First, that anyone who gave up on him after struggles at the NHL level needs to re-think that position. Also that some of the shortcomings that the organization was not pleased with – while not fixed – seem to be taking strides in the right direction.
In no way does this mean he is ready to jump right to the NHL and be a star. There is still plenty of work to be done. He must establish consistency in his game and perform every night like he did Wednesday night.
Goalie Andrey Makarov plays with an edge and competitiveness that is impressive. He got his first AHL win Wednesday night. It's a tiny sample, but he has a .920 save percentage in four games. The Sabres may have another gem here.
Dan Cantenacci and Brayden Irwin both scored two goals in the win. Catenacci has struggled to score at times this season, but made two very nice plays to put the puck in the net for his eighth and ninth of the season. Irwin has been an important role player down the stretch.
Mark Pysyk returned from injury and was dominating. Makarov was asked if he liked playing with Pysyk and responded “Yes, he is good!” ...every goalie seems to say that about him
Tim Schaller has had some ups and downs this year, but had a dominating game. He is an intriguing role player who could turn into a defensive specialist with some offensive upside down the road. He plays hard, is extremely aware and has learned a hard forechecking game from Colton Gillies.
Freddie Roy scored on Grigorenko's pass. The two played together in juniors in Quebec. It gave Grigorenko some comfort right off the bat and Roy didn't miss when given the opportunity to put the puck in the net.