BUFFALO, N.Y., Oct. 4 (UPI) -- Milan Hnilicka came within 17 seconds of a shutout and Dany Heatley picked up an assist in his NHL debut Thursday night as the Atlanta Thrashers won a season opener for the first time in their three-year history, 2-1 over the Buffalo Sabres.
For years, Dominik Hasek held sway at HSBC Arena. But the Sabres were forced to trade "The Dominator" in the offseason and Hnilicka picked up where his countryman left off.
Hnilicka stopped 27 shots and was on the brink of shutting out Buffalo in its home opener for the first time since its inaugural season of 1970-71. The Sabres had a power play and pulled goalie Martin Biron for a six-on-four advantage in the final minute before defenseman Jason Woolley scored off a scramble.
But Hnilicka and Atlanta held on to improve to 1-0 for the first time.
The Thrashers are hoping for production from Heatley and fellow first-round pick Ilya Kovalchuk after dismantling last season's top scoring line. Heatley came through in the first period, setting up defenseman Frantisek Kaberle's goal at 11:37 to put Atlanta ahead for good.
The second overall pick in the 2000 draft, Heatley pushed the puck one-handed across the slot to Kaberle, whose one-timer from high in the right faceoff circle knuckled over Biron's right shoulder.
Kovalchuk, the top overall selection last June, used his impressive speed to generate a solid scoring chance in the second period, racing down the left side and testing Biron with 7 1/2 minutes left.
Biron made 18 saves for Buffalo, which fell to 12-5-3 when opening the season at home.