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With Okposo ill, Smith to make NHL debut on Sunday

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

We've already covered the busy first day in the NHL for C.J. Smith, one that included signing his entry-level contract, taking a physical, participating in his first professional practice and then, to top it all off, taking an online exam an hour later. 

It was so much, Smith barely had a chance to enjoy it.

"It was extremely overwhelming," Smith said. "I didn't really get to soak it in as much as I would've liked to but yeah, it was awesome."

He'll have another chance to soak in what might be an even more memorable day on Sunday. With Kyle Okposo still under the weather and unable to dress against his former team, Smith will make his NHL debut against the New York Islanders at KeyBank Center. 

Video: Sabres in :90 (4/1/17)

If the last two practices are any indication, he'll begin his career playing on the left wing alongside Evan Rodrigues and Brian Gionta. 

"It's going to be a really good opportunity for him to show what he can do and what he is," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "We've seen him the last two days in practice, the last two practices. He's got some speed and jump to his game, agility. I think we've really kind of noted his puck skills and his tenaciousness on the puck.

"He's not a big guy and he's not going to be fooling anyone out there with his size but I've liked the way in the practices he's competed on pucks and been tenacious on pucks and think that's going to be a big part of his game."

Smith is listed at 5-feet-11-inches tall and 185 pounds, but describes his style of play as "blue collar." He scored 125 points in 120 NCAA games at UMass Lowell, but his willingness to battle is as much a part of his game as his scoring touch. 

"I like to just play a tenacious game," Smith said. "Whatever happens, I'm just going to go out there and compete and play hard."

If he's anywhere near as successful on his first NHL test as he was on that online exam on Thursday, he should be fine.

"I did good," he said, smiling. "I got a 90 on it."


Ristolainen set to return

Prior to serving his three-game suspension over the past week, it had been nearly two full years since Rasmus Ristolainen had missed an NHL game. Needless to say for a guy who prides himself on playing big minutes, the time off felt unfamiliar.

"I got good rest," he said. "I worked out well, a good couple of practices and ready to go. It felt like a month."

As much as he disliked having to take the time off, Ristolainen did admit the rest did him well. He said he feels "fresh" as he prepares to make his return to the lineup against the Islanders on Sunday, joining a defensive corps that has managed itself well in his absence.

"I think collectively as a team we played a better all-around game," defenseman Josh Gorges said. "I think our forwards did an unbelievable job these last few games with hunting down loose pucks on the forecheck, keeping pucks in the offensive zone, which means we do less work … and then when it came to us, I think we really just tried to keep the game simple, we tried to keep our shifts short, get everyone involved and just rolled."

The Sabres only have five games remaining this season, but Ristolainen said he's still looking to make the most of them.

"I hope to play my best games this year," Ristolainen said, "and like I said I feel fresh so I'm looking forward to it."


Lines at practice

9 Evander Kane - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 63 Tyler Ennis
82 Marcus Foligno - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
49 C.J. Smith - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 12 Brian Gionta
48 William Carrier - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 26 Matt Moulson

29 Jake McCabe - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
77 Dmitry Kulikov - 47 Zach Bogosian
4 Josh Gorges - 41 Justin Falk
44 Nicolas Deslauriers - 6 Cody Franson

40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson

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