This was not really a dress rehearsal for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Not when it marked just the midpoint of their preseason schedule, the fourth of their seven exhibition games.
Not when Buffalo reported to PPG Paints Arena with a fairly diluted lineup, as visiting teams are wont to do while training camp is in progress.
Still, it was the first time this month that the Penguins dressed a lineup consisting largely of players projected to be in uniform for the regular-season opener against Chicago Oct. 10.
That meant they deployed a number of new players, and quite a few new personnel combinations.
It was not surprising, then, that there were several uneven stretches during their 3-1 victory against the Sabres.
“We had some moments where we were really good,” Mike Sullivan said. “I thought we had some moments where we were a little bit sloppy.”
Nonetheless, there were a couple of surprisingly strong performances.
The Drew O’Connor-Lars Eller-Matt Nieto line might have been the Penguins’ best forward group, and Tristan Jarry, making his first appearance of the preseason, turned aside 25 of 26 shots, being beaten only on a Tage Thompson breakaway.
Eller’s line accounted for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ second and third goals, both by O’Connor.
He deflected an Eller pass behind Buffalo goalie Eric Comrie for what proved to be the game-winner at 8:48 of the third period, then sealed the victory by hitting an empty net with 53.4 seconds to go in regulation.
His first goal came after he had failed to score on a pair of second-period breakaways, his empty-netter a few seconds after he had put a shot just wide of the Sabres’ unguarded net.
O’Connor might not have quite reached double-figures on his own if he’s capitalized on all of his chances, but he wouldn’t have missed by much.
“I have to work on my breakaways a bit, I guess,” O’Connor said, smiling.
He and Nieto tied for the team lead with five shots each, and Eller contributed a couple as the line generated 12 of the Penguins’ 30 shots.
“We had a good start,” O’Connor said. “Got a lot of good looks, right away.”
While it won’t be counted on as a primary source of offense for the Penguins, the unit’s performance Thursday suggested that it’s capable of making more than an occasional appearance on the scoresheet.
“I thought the third line had a strong game,” Sullivan said. “They created a lot of momentum for us. … They’re a conscientious group. Matt Nieto brings some speed. (O’Connor) can really skate. I think you can see that Lars Eller is a really smart, two-way centerman.”
The Penguins have no shortage of quality centers, and their best — Sidney Crosby — worked between Rickard Rakell and Bryan Rust, the only one of the Penguins’ four lines that has played together in the past.
Their chemistry showed when Crosby, stationed below the Buffalo goal line, set up Rakell for the game-opening goal at 11:27 of the second period, as Rakell beat Comrie from above the right hash mark.
Jarry was playing well enough that Rakell’s goal could have been the only one the Penguins needed, but Thompson was able to counter that after he was able to charge in alone on him with 40.9 seconds to go in the middle period.
That was, however, the only puck that eluded Jarry.
“He made a lot of huge stops, and looked very comfortable back there,” Rakell said.
That might be, at least in part, because he professes to be completely healthy after being dogged by injuries for most of 2022-23.
“It’s a totally different circumstance,” Jarry said. “I’m coming in healthy this year. I couldn’t say that for over a year. I think it’s good. I’m happy with where I’m at.”
So is his boss, and the rest of the coaching staff.
“We like how he looks right now,” Sullivan said. “I thought he had a solid effort tonight. He’s looks strong in the net. He looks healthy.”
“We’ve got a ways to go as a team,” Sullivan said. “We’ve got a ways to go, for sure. But for the first game for a lot of these guys in a long time, I thought it was pretty good.”