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Jokiharju has become a dependable presence with help from Ristolainen

20-year-old defenseman has been counted on to close out last 2 victories

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

Henri Jokiharju's night against Nashville on Thursday began with a goal against, when Predators forward Matt Duchene capitalized off a turnover to open the scoring in the game's first minute. 

It ended, for the second straight game, with Jokiharju stepping over the boards after a timeout to protect a one-goal lead with the opposing goalie pulled. And, as with the win over St. Louis on Tuesday, Jokiharju made a crucial play to seal the game. 

Against the Blues, Jokiharju had the puck tapped back to him off a defensive-zone draw. He calmly skated toward the boards and lofted the puck high into the neutral zone, setting up an empty net goal for Zemgus Girgensons. 

With 16 seconds remaining against the Predators, Jokiharju showed his poise in a different way. As talented Predators forward Filip Forsberg carried the puck over the blue line and into the Sabres zone, Jokiharju aggressively closed his gap, poked the puck away, and cleared it from the zone. 

Tweet from @JourdonLaBarber: Henri Jokiharju has been called upon to protect a 1-goal lead with the opposing goalie pulled in each of the Sabres' last 2 wins. He made a pretty nice play against Forsberg to effectively end the game last night ...

Game over. Pretty impressive for a 20-year-old defenseman, right?

"It is," said Rasmus Ristolainen, who's been on the ice with Jokiharju to close out the Sabres' last two victories. "I'm taking care of the kid out there."

Ristolainen was only kidding, but he may actually deserve some credit. As a 19-year-old playing in Chicago last season, Jokiharju says he might have allowed an early shift to derail the rest of his game. Putting those shifts behind him quickly has been a big part of his strong start in Buffalo. 

That change in mentality has come in part as a result of advice from Ristolainen, his fellow Finnish defenseman. 

"He told me that you can't stay on the small things," Jokiharju said. "I think he sees the big picture. He just says to me, 'It's only hockey.' You can tell he's played that role like all the time. I think it's pretty key.

"... You have a bad shift or a bad period, just keep going. I think that's the biggest thing. I think during this season it's been better for me than last year. Last year, I made a mistake, it was pretty much a big thing for me and I would stay on it."

Ristolainen also came into the NHL as a 19-year-old back in 2013-14 and remembers being helped by the other Finnish players in the organization. Back then, the team had Ville Leino at the NHL level and fellow prospect Joel Armia in Rochester. 

He's looked to pay it forward with Jokiharju this season. 

"It's nice to help him on whatever he needs to get comfortable here. He's a good kid, young, real young. He could be my son," the 25-year-old Ristolainen said, exaggerating his own age. "Good player, really confident, makes plays. He's surprised me a lot."

Jokiharju said upon being traded to Buffalo in the summer that it was his goal to play a full season in the NHL - high expectations for a young player in a crowded defense corps. He's dressed in every game for the Sabres so far, appearing at times on both the power play and the penalty kill. 

With Jokiharju on the ice at 5-on-5, the Sabres have outscored opponents 24-17 according to 

"He's just somebody, with the puck, who's managing it as well as anybody I've seen and that's one of the reasons his defensive game is responsible and passionate," Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said. "I've said it before, I'll say it again, everybody in the Sabres family needs to be really excited about Henri's future."

If he keeps playing at his current pace, we could see him close out many more games in the future.

"No one gets anything here," Ristolainen said. "You've got to earn every minute. He earned his spot in the lineup, his minutes. He's getting power play, penalty kill lately, at the end. It just shows that he earned the trust from the coach and that he's been playing well."


Friday's practice

Video: Sabres in :50 - Okposo on his linemates

Zach Bogosian addressed the media after practice, one day after a report from TSN suggested that he had requested a trade from the Sabres. Bogosian was scratched Thursday for the first time since making his season debut on Nov. 24. 

"I'm going to let any conversation between myself, [general manager] Jason [Botterill], and my agent stay with me personally," Bogosian said. "… Everyone wants to play. For me, I'm just focused hard on getting back in the lineup."

Krueger addressed the situation as well. His full comments can be found in the video below. 

Video: Ralph Krueger (12/13/19)

"I've always told you, we're going to be open and honest about what goes on in our room as much as we can, but some things are going to be worked on internally and will be visible for you to see," he said. "Sometimes, we need to spend some time on that, and it will take time. We will see the visible process here quite clearly. 

"But I have no fear or no sleepless nights because of minor conflicts within the group. What we need to do is react to them. Our character is tested in conflict and our personality actually grows and develops in these kinds of situations, so that's what we'll do all together. At the moment, the roster is what it is and we'll continue to work towards the Islander game with that in mind."

Here's how the Sabres lined up for practice: 

68 Victor Olofsson - 9 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
53 Jeff Skinner - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 43 Conor Sheary / 37 Casey Mittelstadt
13 Jimmy Vesey - 90 Marcus Johansson - 74 Rasmus Asplund
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 22 Johan Larsson - 21 Kyle Okposo

62 Brandon Montour - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
26 Rasmus Dahlin - 4 Zach Bogosian
19 Jake McCabe - 33 Colin Miller
6 Marco Scandella - 10 Henri Jokiharju 

35 Linus Ullmark
40 Carter Hutton

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