The Buffalo Sabres trailed by two goals entering the third period of their game Thursday against the Calgary Flames. Then defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen started shooting the puck.
Ristolainen scored three times in the third period, nearly bringing the Sabres back in a game they lost 4-3. Two of the goals tied the game, and his hat trick came in a span of 11 minutes, 48 seconds.
Ristolainen was the first Sabres defenseman to score three goals in a single period, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He's the first Sabres defenseman with a hat trick since Hockey Hall of Fame member Phil Housley on Jan. 22, 1988 against the New Jersey Devils, and he was the first defenseman to score three times in a period since another Hockey Hall of Fame member, Al MacInnis, in the first period of a game for the St. Louis Blues against the New York Rangers on Oct. 12, 1998.
Ristolainen, at 21 years, 44 days, is only the third defenseman 21 or younger to score a hat trick since the 1987-88 season, according to hockey-reference.com, joining Bryan Fogarty (21 years, 173 days) of the Quebec Nordiques against the Sabres on Dec. 1, 1990, and P.K. Subban (21 years, 311 days) of the Montreal Canadiens against the Minnesota Wild on March 20, 2011.
It also was the first hat trick by any Sabres player since Thomas Vanek on Jan. 31, 2013 against the Boston Bruins.
Defense - BUF
GOALS: 7 | ASST: 14 | PTS: 21
SOG: 75 | +/-: -5
"I don't know. Maybe when I was 10 or something when I played forward," Ristolainen told the Buffalo News when asked when his last hat trick was. "I don't really remember. Maybe never."
Ristolainen's first goal came 2:27 into the third when his shot from the point beat Flames goalie Jonas Hiller to the glove side for a power-play goal that cut the Sabres' deficit to 2-1.
Then at 4:44, with the Sabres on another power play, center Ryan O'Reilly beat the Flames' Matt Stajan on a faceoff on the right side of the Flames zone, winning the puck back to Ristolainen, and his shot from above the circles beat Hiller low to the blocker side to tie the game.
After Sean Monahan gave the Flames a 3-2 lead, Ristolainen retrieved the rebound of a shot by teammate Zach Bogosian, circled behind the Flames net and from a sharp angle threw a puck into the crease that went off Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman and past Hiller at 14:15 to tie the game 3-3.
Johnny Gaudreau scored the game-winning goal for the Flames 55 seconds later.
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said there was even more Ristolainen could have done.
"If he shot the puck one more time in the third he had an opportunity to put it at the net and he tried to make a pass across the crease to [Brian] Gionta," Bylsma said. "If he might have put that one at the net he might have got us another goal. He stepped up in a big way and it feels like a wasted effort."
Ristolainen, the eighth pick of the 2013 NHL Draft, hadn't scored in 14 games entering Thursday. But in his third season he's continuing to show improvement. In 29 games he has 21 points, one more than he had in 78 games last season, and his seven goals are one from matching his total last season. And he's producing while playing more; his average of 24:13 of ice time per game leads the Sabres and is nearly four minutes more per game than the 20:36 he averaged last season.
"He's an exceptional talent and he's turning into a game-changer," Josh Gorges, his defense partner, told the Buffalo News. "We needed someone to step up in the third and he sure did. He's getting better every day. [Thursday] he showed he's a difference maker. When we need someone to step up defensively, he's there. When we need someone to step up offensively, he's there like we saw."