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Ristolainen's net-front presence has helped fuel resurgent power play

News and notes from Wednesday's practice

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Rasmus Ristolainen has never been one to shy away from contact. He gets under opponents' skin with his physicality during games, often smirking while doing so. His pregame routine involves an exchange of shoves with longtime teammate Zemgus Girgensons, both of whom laugh the whole time. 

Combine that fondness for physicality with a 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame, and what do you get? On the power play, you get one heck of a net-front presence. 

"I enjoy it a lot and take a lot of pride in it," Ristolainen said. "It's been working and, yeah, I have a lot of fun out there."

Playing without one of its foremost threats in winger Victor Olofsson, the Sabres' power play is 6-for-13 over its last five games. One of the keys to its resurgence has been the addition of Ristolainen down low, a spot he'd only briefly occupied earlier this season (with a goal to show for it). 

Video: BUF@BOS: Ristolainen buries rebound for PPG

Throughout his career, Ristolainen has traditionally occupied the point for the Sabres on the power play, often enjoying success while quarterbacking the top unit. His 91 power-play points since the start of the 2015-16 season rank 11th among NHL defensemen. 

The Sabres now have another Rasmus who also excels at the point, freeing Ristolainen to take his talents down low. It's a look the team utilized on and off earlier in the season - including in 6-on-5 situations with the goalie pulled - that has become a fixture since Olofsson's injury on Jan. 2. 

"It's just my 25 years of coaching, I've often done that where you have a very designated net-front personality," Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said. "It could be a forward who has that personality or a defenseman. … We definitely saw that as a 6-on-5 necessity, to have a definite presence who can win also retrievals and battles. 

"That's what the net-front person on the power play is well positioned to [do], always get to retrievals first because the PK is above him. … Risto is just outstanding in those battles and has the calmness still and the hands to be able to deal with what's necessary there."

The plays Ristolainen has made in the team's last two victories show the diversity of his skill set down low. In Detroit on Sunday, he simply outmuscled Red Wings defenseman Patrick Nemeth to locate a rebound in the crease and bury it for his fifth goal of the season.

Video: BUF@DET: Ristolainen jams puck home for PPG

Against Vegas on Tuesday, he was the middleman in a tic-tac-toe play that resulted in a one-time goal for Sam Reinhart in the slot. 

Video: VGK@BUF: Reinhart nets PPG on Ristolainen's set-up

"I feel everyone was kind of joking and surprised I can pass the puck," Ristolainen said. "But you know, I used to make plays, too. It's not that hard to make a two-foot pass."

His willingness to exchange cross-checks with net-front defenders make him an antagonizing distraction for the penalty kill. His large frame makes him an ideal screen in front of opposing goaltenders. 

Meanwhile, he's shown an ability to retrieve loose pucks and keep possession alive. Reinhart's goal against the Golden Knights was precipitated by a battle won by Ristolainen in the corner. His goal in Detroit was made possible after he manhandled Filip Hronek down low and rimmed the puck along the boards, giving the Sabres possession off the opening draw. 

While Ristolainen handles things down low, the remaining four skaters have made an effort to constantly show up in different spots, using movement to stay unpredictable. Reinhart, who used to occupy the net front full-time, has three power-play goals in the last five games: two from the left faceoff circle and one from the slot. 

"That's what we're asking for on the power play, to have different looks, different attacking points, which we're getting better at now as we evolve," Krueger said. "Of course, that discussion in the pre-scouts will be around controlling [Ristolainen] and making sure he doesn't get in front so maybe that's a deception. But we need multiple points of attack and that was a good one to use last night."

"I think I've been doing a pretty good job with loose pucks all over the goal line," Ristolainen added. "I just try to stay in front of the goalie and you know maybe get good battles with their D. You know, maybe they focus on me too much sometimes and some other guys have more space."

The success on the power play is the latest chapter in what Ristolainen believes is his best NHL season so far. He's still seeing consistent matchups against other teams' top lines, but goals are in Buffalo's favor, 34-33, with him on the ice at 5-on-5. He credits Krueger and his staff and the connected structure they've instilled. 

That's not to say he's satisfied. 

"There's still a lot more to come and a lot more potential I want to reach," he said. 

 

Lazar carving out a consistent role

Curtis Lazar provided a much-needed cushion with his empty-net goal on Tuesday, which traveled slowly from end to end off his backhand. Ironically, he admitted he wasn't even trying to score. 

He had been on the ice for 1:53 - with an icing and a timeout in-between - when the puck found his stick in the slot of his own zone. He simply tried to flip it to the opposite blue line to relieve pressure and allow teammates to change. 

Instead, it was game over. 

Video: VGK@BUF: Lazar scores on empty net with backhand

"I mean, that's kind of how my year's going," Lazar said. "I've worked hard for those chances and it's good to have luck on your side, too."

Lazar came to Buffalo in the fall with the idea that he could blossom following an up-and-down start to his career. He was drafted 13th overall by Ottawa in 2013, began his NHL career at age 19 the following year, and admits he lost a piece of his offensive game in the years that followed. 

He willingly spent last season in AHL Stockton, looking to reclaim his offensive identity. When he fell just short of making the Sabres' roster out of training camp this season, he kept a positive attitude in Rochester and stayed ready for his next opportunity. 

It's paying off now. Lazar has dressed in 11 straight games for the Sabres, scoring six points (3+3). The long shift to end the game against Vegas brought his ice time to 18:06, his highest total since Nov. 25, 2015. His 52.8-percent mark in the faceoff circle is the best of his career, and he feels by playing his natural position at center, he's been put in a position to succeed. 

"Curtis is, again, a different look up the middle with the size that he brings," Krueger said. "… He has that opportunity to be a leader of a lien that is hard to play against but can also defend against top lines of the other team so that can release some of the ice times of our top lines, especially here at home to free them up to play against possibly weaker lines of the opposition. 

"Curtis is giving us that. He's working hard on his faceoffs. It gives us a powerful right-handed draw opportunity and he's learning every day better to play within our defensive structure that we want and the principles and concepts that we need."

While it's the little things that earned him his role, the offense has started to come, too. He has four goals and seven points in 17 games - per-game averages of .23 and .41, respectively. Entering this season, he'd averaged .06 goals and .21 points in 246 NHL games. 

Still just 24, he sees no reason why more offense can't be in his future.

"I've been that player before," he said. "I've done it at every level except the NHL. Again, with me, I've always established that defensive game first to build that trust and get that ice time and then build on the offense. It's nice to pit in there and be relied upon in all situations. 

"My job is keep the puck out of our net. But I am a scorer, I have that instinct, I just want to keep on going. I am seeing the plays and I am creating. When I get chances, I am putting them in."

 

Wednesday's practice

Video: Sabres in :50 - Angry Larry

Here's how the Sabres lined up prior to leaving for their two-game road trip, which begins in Dallas on Thursday:

28 Zemgus Girgensons - 9 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
43 Conor Sheary - 90 Marcus Johansson - 67 Michael Frolik
74 Rasmus Asplund - 22 Johan Larsson - 21 Kyle Okposo
13 Jimmy Vesey - 27 Curtis Lazar - 71 Evan Rodrigues / 20 Scott Wilson

24 Lawrence Pilut - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
19 Jake McCabe - 10 Henri Jokiharju
26 Rasmus Dahlin - 62 Brandon Montour
33 Colin Miller - 4 Zach Bogosian 

35 Linus Ullmark
40 Carter Hutton

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