Rasmus Dahlin is racking up points these days.
Dahlin's assist against Toronto on Sunday was his 14th point in 15 games dating back to Jan. 4, tied for fourth among NHL blueliners in that span. It was also the 79th point of his young career, matching Ray Bourque for second-most by a teenage defenseman in league history.
Yet for all that offense, any conversation with coach Ralph Krueger about the strides Dahlin has made in his sophomore season begins in the defensive zone.
"If you look at his game yesterday, it was outstanding," Krueger said after practice on Monday. "Sadly, that's our main job as coaches. We do speak to you more about the defense than the offense. We hope the offense grows out of that.
"But defensively, he's really become comfortable up against anybody, and he's finding his way in our principles, which we're really excited about."
Video: AFTER PRACTICE: Ralph Krueger
Krueger noted prior to the team's game at Madison Square Garden earlier this month how a combination of added size and improved technique has put Dahlin in a position to win more of his 1-on-1 battles as this season has progressed.
Dahlin has learned how to approach different players defensively. He's playing smarter and thinking less, leading to a confidence on defense that has translated to his offensive game. Since his hot streak began on Jan. 4, the Sabres have a 68.4-percent share of goals scored with Dahlin on the ice at 5-on-5.
Sabres assistant coach Steve Smith, who works with the team's defensemen, explained how Dahlin's technique has improved in his own end.
"It's identifying stick positioning, it's identifying body positioning, it's identifying the strength of the other players that he's playing against," Smith explained. "Big, strong guys you can pursue a lot quicker and be a lot heavier on. Some of the lighter players you have to be a little bit more nimble as you skate into the corners.
"I think that's one of the things he's doing, is learning the league, which guys you can slam around a little bit and which guys you need to stay away from. The other side of it is some of those bigger, stronger guys, you just learn how to take away their hands versus trying to contain a guy who's 220 pounds. It's not going to be an easy task for a younger player."
It helps that Dahlin is, by all accounts, a willing student. Smith says the first time he met Dahlin last season, he wanted to hug his parents for the way the defenseman was raised.
"It's amazing how you tell him from one game to the next that he needs to do something a little more often, he tries it almost within the first shift," Smith said. "So, he really is coachable."
His learning has extended to the offensive end, too. Dahlin is capable of what Krueger refers to as moments of "genius" with the puck; he has been since before he even took the ice in a Sabres sweater. He has a forward's ability to handle the puck and a poise that allows him to make plays under pressure.
What Krueger and Smith have noticed this season is an ability by Dahlin to pick the right spots to put that genius on display.
"He's now being patient and waiting until those opportunities and those openings are actually there," Krueger said. "So, it's simple play, simple play - boom, genius. Simple play, simple play, simple play, genius. There's a different rhythm all the time and he's finding that rhythm now, which the great defensemen do, is that mix between simplicity when the team needs it and brilliance when we need it because he can really make a play when he has that space and time."
Smith added: "When you get away with a play standing still on the blue line, you go around somebody, it looks wonderful to the crowd but in a 2-1 hockey game and you're up by a goal, you don't want him trying that stuff because it is a dangerous play.
"So, he's eventually getting to the point where he knows when to take the odds, when to play with the odds, when to go against the odds. At this point, more often than not I find him to be playing with the odds than against them. Last year, it was certainly the opposite, especially early in the season."
Miller benefitting from consistent play
Dahlin has found a steady defense partner of late in Colin Miller, who has played 10 straight games. During that stretch, Miller leads Sabres defensemen with 18 shots and a 56.5-percent shot attempt share at 5-on-5. He also has four assists, two of which came in the win over Toronto on Sunday.
After appearing in the team's first 17 games, Miller found himself in and out of the lineup while the Sabres balanced playing time among eight defensemen. He's taken advantage of this recent run of playing time both with and without the puck.
"It was a tough grind in the middle there when we were eight-plus defensemen fighting for spots," Krueger said. "It was not easy being a defenseman in our lineup. You had to have a very good game all the time to stay in there.
"I think just the comfort of now being one of the top six and knowing that the confidence is there makes him calmer in his game, both defensively and offensively. He's been excellent in adding some punch, a surprising punch at times. We all know his shot's a lethal weapon that we need to use more in our game and yesterday was a great example."
Both of Miller's assists against the Maple Leafs came on shots from the point. The first caromed off the end boards to Johan Larsson; the second was tipped into the net by Conor Sheary. It was all part of a concerted effort to go low to high and loosen Toronto's tight defense in front of its net.
But Miller's shot is a weapon even when he doesn't pull the trigger, evidenced by his assists against Detroit and New York last week. Both came on shot fakes up high that opened up lanes to the net:
Video: DET@BUF: Wilson deflects home game-tying goal in 3rd
Video: BUF@NYR: Girgensons' nifty opening goal
"I think it's more consistency," Miller said. "The more games you're in, the more you play and stuff like that, the more rhythm and stuff you have. I feel on the back-end right now we have some good consistency with the D pairings, so hopefully that continues."
Video: Monday's Practice Report
Johan Larsson and Carter Hutton both took maintenance days but will travel with the team to Ottawa. Michael Frolik remained absent with an illness and will not make the trip.
Hutton previously did not practice on Saturday and returned to make 20 saves against Toronto on Sunday for his fourth victory in five games. Krueger said he expects the goaltender to be available against the Senators on Tuesday.
"The maintenance is always a wide-open situation," Krueger said. "But we feel comfortable with him dealing with this maintenance here today. It's something that we expect to go away."