BUFFALO — Mason Lohrei made his NHL debut Tuesday night just a few long strides from the chilly shores of Lake Erie at KeyBank Center. It was the latest step in the career of the big defenseman, who was born in that hockey hotbed of Baton Rouge, La., a town that cranks out NFLers like it’s nobody’s business . . . but future NHLers? Not so much.
“So, my dad [Dave] was coaching in the East Coast League, the Baton Rouge Kingfish,” Lohrei explained. “So, I was born there. We lived there for two or three years and then we moved out.”
Certainly not long enough to pledge allegiance to the Bayou Bengals. Lohrei is a Buckeye all the way.
“Before I went to college, I was a little bit of an LSU fan, just because I was born there, but obviously going to Ohio State, there’s nothing that’s ever going to split me over from that,” said Lohrei.
Lohrei was one of the bright spots in the Bruins’ 4-1 loss to the Sabres. Inserted in the starting lineup, Lohrei played calm and confident from the get-go, leading to a most impressive third period, when he set up Boston’s only goal, landing a shot on net from the point and watching Oskar Steen bury the rebound.
“Each period he got better. I thought in the third period, he was pretty dominant for us,” coach Jim Montgomery said. “He’s got the long reach and he’s got the ability to make plays at both ends. And we saw that tonight.”
Lohrei, who led all skaters in time on ice with 29 minutes, 1 second, showed no rookie jitters, settling passes and setting up teammates for scoring chances. He shows an uncanny ability to get out of tough situations with a quick change of pace that leaves opponents flat-footed.
“He’s a player that does a lot of good things when he has the puck, and his poise is the strength of his game,” said Montgomery. “And when someone has the poise to look people off and hold on to pucks to make special plays, you don’t want to discourage that. You want to encourage that. We want him to be able to feel comfortable making plays like he did in college.”
It was just about this time last year that Lohrei was getting ready for his second season patrolling the Buckeye blue line. He exited Columbus after Ohio State was bounced from the NCAA Tournament (he finished with 8 goals and 61 points in 71 games) and signed with the Bruins, who made him a second-round choice (58th overall) in 2020.
After a cup of coffee in AHL Providence at the end of last season, Lohrei is among a handful of hopefuls hoping to park themselves with the varsity back liners.
Recently labeled a “pleasant surprise” of training camp by coach Jim Montgomery, Lohrei was partnered with Brandon Carlo against the Sabres. Carlo has played a big role in helping Lohrei feel at ease in his first Bruins camp.
“Anytime you get to play with somebody like that, he’s an unbelievable player, and whatever I can do to learn from him while playing with him, it’ll just add to my game,” said Lohrei. “And on top of that, he’s one of the nicest guys here, so it makes it easy to go out there and feel comfortable.”
Though he only played in eight games with the Baby B’s — including three playoff contests — the 6-foot-5-inch, 211-pound Lohrei said it really set him up well for this summer.
“Just being in a pro environment and living that schedule as opposed to college and then just as far as hockey goes, it was a lot faster, more physical,” he said. “Just getting used to that is really beneficial to go there and get some games in.”
Montgomery acknowledged he had no expectations for Lohrei coming into camp because he hadn’t seen a lot of him live, but he’s been impressed with how he’s conducted himself against a step up in competition.
“What I like about him is his brain, his length, his feet, and his tremendous poise with the puck,” the coach said Tuesday.
Like Lohrei, Montgomery pointed to the defenseman’s brief AHL stint as key in his development.
“I think the benefit of him going to Providence and getting some games in and getting used to our system, he seems to be very comfortable in playing fast defensively in our D-zone,” said the coach. “I think what we need to see at the NHL level is: How many battles is he going to win? How often is he going to win footraces to be first on puck, and how much does he help us in our transition offensively and defensively.”
Lohrei said he feels like he is consistently improving in every area of his game, but particularly in “making the simple play” and getting more physical — a huge point of emphasis for Montgomery going into the season.
“I’ve got to just go out there every day and keep competing hard and getting under sticks in front and using my body to defend and box guys out, for sure,” said Lohrei, who played in every situation in college and aims to be that kind of player in the pros.
“That’s always been my game. I take a lot of pride in defending and being on the penalty kill and going out there late in games to prevent the other team,” he said. “But obviously I love all the offensive aspects of the game, too. I’m not saying right away or anything, but I think that’s where I want my game to be eventually at this level.”
Kyle Keyser got the start in net for the Bruins. Keyser was wearing the classic goalie No. 85. He was backed up by Michael DiPietro (who wore No. 80!) Keyser played the first period-and-a-half and made 22 saves before giving way to DiPietro, who stopped 12 shots ... The Bruins emerged from the game injury-free, according to Montgomery ... The Sabres got goals from Jeff Skinner (one-timer from the slot with Ryan Mast in the box for holding), Riley Stillman (nice feed from Casey Mittelstadt), Brandon Biro (cross-ice feed from Mittelstadt, who absorbed a Trevor Kuntar hit to make the play), and Filip Cederqvist (empty netter) ... Devon Levi, who finished up his college career with 17 wins for Northeastern last season, has the inside track on the No. 1 net job with the Sabres. Levi split Tuesday night’s game with Devin Cooley.
The Bruins debuted their white centennial sweaters with six stripes on each arm (one for each Stanley Cup title) ... The Sabres wore their traditional royal blue-and-gold beauties. Beware: Buffalo is bringing back its god-awful black-and-red kits (circa 1996-2006) for 15 games (kids, hide your eyes!) ... With Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, and Charlie McAvoy not dressing, Carlo, Milan Lucic, and Matt Grzelcyk wore the “A” on their shoulders ... Patrick Brown, who was dinged up against the Rangers on Sunday, practiced Tuesday, and Jakub Zboril, who also left the opener early, was on track to practice Wednesday, Montgomery reported ... Forward John Farinacci and defenseman Jackson Edward were the Bruins’ scratches ... Ex-Bruins defenseman Connor Clifton, who signed a three-year, $10 million deal with the Sabres, was not in the lineup ... For the record, the aforementioned Baton Rouge Kingfish bolted the Bayou back in 2003 and were known as the Victoria (British Columbia) Salmon Kings. The team folded after the 2010-11 season.