For the first time in nearly two full years, the Buffalo Sabres will take the ice for a game without Rasmus Ristolainen in their lineup when they host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night. After that, they'll do it twice more.
Ristolainen was suspended three games on Thursday for his hit against Pittsburgh Penguins forward Jake Guentzel, a decision that left many of Ristolainen's teammates surprised following practice on Friday.
"A little bit, I mean, three games is a lot," alternate captain Josh Gorges, who was Ristolainen's defensive partner at the time of the hit, said. "It's a tough decision and it's tough being those guys making those decisions. It's never easy … It's a split-second decision and that's all it is, a split second."
Video: Sabres in :90 (3/24/17)
Just before Ristolainen delivered the hit in open ice, the Penguins had attempted a breakout pass to Guentzel in the neutral zone. Ristolainen anticipated that the pass would find its way to the Penguins forward, but it was broken up by Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons.
As a result, Ristolainen - drifting backward - hit Guentzel in spite of him not having the puck. Ristolainen received a five-minute major for interference and a game misconduct; Guentzel left the game and was diagnosed with a concussion.
"If that puck ended up keeping coming and didn't get separated, it's a clean hit and we don't even talk about it so I think the intentions of the hit we're not to be dirty, malicious, or hurt anybody," Gorges said. "The instances and how it played out, yeah the puck never made it and Risto's got to be aware and [Guentzel is] an unsuspecting player that doesn't touch the puck, I understand all these things. But yeah, I was surprised that it went to three [games]."
Ristolainen said he went into his telephone hearing on Thursday afternoon without any expectations and accepted the League's decision. This is the first suspension of his NHL career.
"Like everyone would say, he didn't have the puck so I have to make sure when I hit, that he has the puck," he said. "You can't hit the guy without the puck."
In a video explanation of the suspension (above), the Department of Player Safety argued that Ristolainen would have had time to avoid making the hit once the play was broken up had he been skating forward instead of backward. Ristolainen chose not to speculate in that regard, but did say that he felt there was little he could change about the play.
"I don't know what I could really do different there because it was a split second, half second," he said. "It's a quick time and I was skating backwards so it's really hard to stop there and I don't think I can. Unfortunately, the play happened and he got injured."
Robin Lehner, meanwhile, had no problem offering his opinion on the play.
"I feel for him," he said. "He's one of the more passionate guys that I've played with, he really wants to help this team. He want to play as much as he can. He wants to be a guy who turns this around and gets better with the team.
"… It's three games away from the team, there's a lot of money he gives up and, as I said, it's all because of the tip of a stick. People might not agree with me, and that's fine, but reverse jerseys and it's not three games. Everyone - maybe not officially - but around the League, a lot of people would agree with me."
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma agreed that there always tends to be a feeling - whether it's true or not - that the top teams get the breaks. But he also had the experience of coaching the Penguins for six seasons when they were among the League's best, and said it felt no different on that side of the coin.
"Over the last 30 years of my career, it didn't matter where I was at or if I was a player or a coach, you feel like the people on the other side are getting more calls and are treated differently," he said.
Video: BYLSMA: After Practice
Ristolainen hasn't missed a game since April 1, 2015 - which, coincidentally, was also against the Maple Leafs. He's averaged 26:42 of ice time this season, the fifth-highest mark in the NHL. His absence will be felt not only on defense, but on the power play (Buffalo went with five forwards on the top unit in his absence) and the penalty kill as well.
"You're missing a 27-minute a night guy who's in every situation for you," Bylsma said. "That's one you can't replace. So that's what we're going to have to deal with in the next three games and our guys will go forward doing that."
Excluding Ristolainen, the Sabres had five defensemen at practice. Justin Falk returned for the first time since sustaining a calf injury in San Jose last week and said he hopes to play Saturday, which Bylsma said is a possibility assuming Falk responds well to practicing.
Cody Franson and Taylor Fedun are still out due to injuries, meaning the Sabres will have to recall a sixth defenseman to replace Ristolainen in the lineup.
As for how the decision will affect Ristolainen's game, his fellow defensemen said they wouldn't expect it to take away from the aggressiveness that's defined him during his four NHL seasons.
"I hope not," Gorges said. "I hope that he keeps playing on the edge … That's what makes him such an all-around good player, is he's not one-dimensional. He can play a skilled game but he's a big body that likes to play a physical game and doesn't mind when guys come and finish checks on him. He embraces that part of the game.
"I hope that doesn't change in him and I really don't think it will."
63 Tyler Ennis - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
82 Marcus Foligno - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
9 Evander Kane - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 12 Brian Gionta
48 William Carrier - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 26 Matt Moulson
44 Nicolas Deslauriers - 52 Hudson Fasching
4 Josh Gorges - 41 Justin Falk
77 Dmitry Kulikov - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe - 47 Zach Bogosian
40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson
First unit: Eichel, O'Reilly, Okposo, Kane, Reinhart
Second unit: McCabe/Bogosian, Ennis, Gionta, Rodrigues, Moulson