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Okposo: Sabres need to learn from meeting with Leafs

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

While a lot of the focus for the past two days has been on who won't be in the lineup for the Buffalo Sabres tonight - Rasmus Ristolainen will be serving the first game of his three-game suspension - there will be a handful of players who are returning from their own prolonged absences, too.

Kyle Okposo, William Carrier, Dmitry Kulikov and Justin Falk will all be back in the lineup for the Sabres when they host the Toronto Maple Leafs at KeyBank Center. They'll face a Toronto team that has ascended to third place in the Atlantic Division with points in four of its last five games and is fighting for its first playoff berth in four seasons.

It's exactly the kind of game, Okposo said, that the Sabres still need to learn how to win.

"I know where they are in the standings and, you know, when you don't make the playoffs and you're not in that race, it's brutal," Okposo said. "It's terrible. But we have to learn from this, we have to learn from a game like tonight where they're fighting for every inch.

"They're right there, they're right on the cusp. They need every point and we're going to play in a game tonight that's going to be tough. It's going to be hard. We've got to figure out how to play in these games. It's going to be probably a little foreign to us as a group, but we've got to come ready to play."

Video: Preview: TOR at BUF (3/25/17)

Stopping the Maple Leafs begins with slowing down their youth. Toronto's top three scorers are all rookies: Auston Matthews sits at the top with 60 points, then comes Mitch Marner with 57 points and William Nylander with 56. Those three also rank second, third and fourth in scoring among NHL rookies, while defenseman Nikita Zaitsev (33 points) and forward Connor Brown (31) rank 11th and 12th. 

Those skilled rookies help comprise Toronto's power play, which sits atop the League at 24.1 percent.

"I think going against a team like Toronto, the best way to kill a penalty is not to take too many penalties," Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian said. "Stay out of the box and not give them a chance to carry that momentum whether they score or not."

Buffalo's power play has been almost just as effective, sitting right behind Toronto at 23.9 percent. It will have a different look, however, with Ristolainen out. Dan Bylsma has elected to use five forwards on his top unit: Ryan O'Reilly, Jack Eichel, Evander Kane, Sam Reinhart and Okposo.

Bylsma said he's used the five-forward look before, and its O'Reilly's ability to man the point and assume the defensive responsibilities up top that makes it possible in this scenario.

"When you do it, you're putting your best five players on the ice in an offensive situation," Bylsma said. "You need to have a special guy on top to be able to do it, a guy who's comfortable there, responsible there. You're flipping the switch a little bit when you're standing back on the point as a skill guy versus being a defenseman standing there. For some players it's a little bit of an island, it's a new experience and a little bit of an island, but Ryan's been there."

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On defense, meanwhile, the absence of Ristolainen and his average ice time of 26:42 will likely mean a trickle-down effect for all six defensemen to see more time. It also means another opportunity for Brady Austin, who was recalled to step into the lineup this morning. 

Austin made his NHL debut in Detroit on Monday and skated 15:37, and then skated 19:00 with Ristolainen absent for much of the following game against Pittsburgh. He was reassigned to Rochester on Wednesday.

"I think the way he played in that game was a bit of surprise," Bylsma said. "He was big, strong, physical, knocked down [Detroit forward Justin] Abdelkader on the first shift as we've already mentioned. He was big and strong around our net, it's been a long opportunity for him coming, he's spent three years in our organization and he finally gets a couple games here to show what he can do."

Robin Lehner will start in net for the Sabres and will be opposed by Frederik Andersen for the Maple Leafs.

Coverage tonight begins at 6:30 p.m. with the Tops Pregame Show on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops at 7 p.m.


Projected lineup

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

Defensemen: 4 Josh Gorges, 41 Justin Falk, 29 Jake McCabe, 47 Zach Bogosian, 77 Dmitry Kulikov, 67 Brady Austin

40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson

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