News | 9/14/2011 9:54:32 AM | Warren Kosel

†Zack Kassian in the 2011 NHL Prospects Tournament

All it took were a pair of back-to-back 6-3 victories for the Buffalo Sabres prospects to solidify a meeting with the New York Rangers rookies in tonight’s championship winner-take-all finale of the 2011 NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Michigan. Combined with a sound defensive unit and an offense that has outscored its opponents 14-11, including 6-4 in the third period through the first three games, the Sabres have quickly labeled themselves as the top team in the tournament.

But despite the many reasons for Buffalo’s recent success in the annual event, perhaps the most significant one can be attributed to the consistent play of forward Zack Kassian, whose hard-nosed, physical style has other teams aware of his presence on the ice.

“I try to incorporate a bit of everything to my game, but I think the physicality I bring to the team is what I’m all about and really shows the kind of player I am,” said Kassian, whose appeared in all three games for the Sabres, including last night’s 5-2 loss to the host Detroit Red Wings. “I’ve always been a physical player and I know other teams are starting to see that side of me as well.”

But in spite of his grittiness, Kassian also offers more than just his immense stature, as evidenced by his three points (0+3) in the tournament thus far, tying him for second overall on the team in scoring. After falling one goal short of the “Gordie Howe hat trick” in Buffalo’s win over Minnesota on Saturday, Kassian followed up his performance with a two-assist effort in the Sabres’ triumph over Columbus on Sunday.

“Contributing offensively in any way that I can has always been a major part of my game,” said Kassian, Buffalo’s first-round selection (13th overall) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. “I’m fortunate enough where I can bring two different aspects to the game, whether it’s through my physicality or on the scoreboard. I’m here to help my team in whatever way I can.”

Last season with Windsor (OHL), the 6-foot-3, 215-pound forward captured career-highs in all offensive categories in goals (26), assists (51) and points (77) to finish second on the team in overall scoring. In 213 combined OHL games with Peterborough and Windsor, Kassian potted 71 goals and assisted on 121 others for 192 career points. After a midseason trade to Windsor in 2009-10, he helped the Spitfires to their second consecutive Memorial Cup, notching 16 points (7+9) in 19 postseason contests along the way.

If that wasn’t enough, Kassian earned a spot with the American Hockey League’s Portland Pirates for the 2011 Calder Cup Playoffs, one that provided quality ice time in North America’s second-best hockey league and a chance to suit up for his first professional game.

Aside from his individual contributions to the Sabres in the tournament, Kassian claims it’s a mixture of “everyone doing all the right things” and unification among the players that has enabled the team to enjoy the success thus far.

“It’s only been two games so far, but the team is really starting to gel as a unit and that’s says a lot about the group of guys we have here since we’ve only been skating as a team for a few days,” said Kassian. “It’s tough because there’s different guys in the lineup each night, but we all know what’s expected of us, we’re playing well with our line mates and everyone seems to be handling it well.”

In addition to establishing a sense of team camaraderie, Kassian commends the work ethic demonstrated by the players, particularly late in the game, that has allowed Buffalo to come this far in the tournament. It’s a quality that he and the rest of young Sabres believe is a true testament to the character of the team and their commitment to winning.

“I think the biggest reason we’ve gotten so far is because of our work ethic,” said Kassian. “We’ve all worked really hard ever since we got here and we’ve become a great third period team and playing hard late in the game is what is going to help you win.”

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