Rasmus Ristolainen has already worn the Finnish sweater a number of times, most notably when he scored the winning goal in overtime for his home country in the Gold Medal game at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship.
But that didn’t make it any less special to find out about his involvement in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
"It's always a pleasure," Ristolainen said after practice on Wednesday. "It's a huge tournament and all the best players are there so it’s going to be exciting."
With roster announcements for the inaugural tournament coming throughout the day, Ristolainen became the first Buffalo Sabre to have earned a spot when Team Finland released its preliminary roster on Wednesday morning.
Ristolainen, 21, has evolved into a top-pair defenseman for the Sabres this season, third on the team with 39 points (8+27) and averaging a team-high 25:20 of ice time per game.
"It's deserved," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "I'm real happy for him. He's a young player coming into his own this year. He's stepped from being a younger player to being a full-time legitimate NHL player and I think it shows in his selection."
For as much as he's improved, however, Ristolainen hasn't been satisfied with his game as of late. He hasn't scored a goal since Jan. 12, and Bylsma suggested that attempting to do too much offensively may have detracted from his defense in recent weeks.
"It's not there where it should be," Ristolainen said. "Start of the year was good, and of course everyone wants to be better and better and go play better all the time, but I am not playing at the level right now I want to play [at]. We have 18 games left so I want to have a good end for the year."
The Sabres have other hopefuls for the tournament. Jack Eichel is a likely candidate to make Team North America – a collection of North American players under age 23 – while Sam Reinhart may also draw consideration, as could Ryan O'Reilly for Team Canada and Zemgus Girgensons for Team Europe.
The tournament begins on Sept. 17, and all games will be played at Air Canada Centre in Toronto. Despite the fact that the timing of the tournament will take cause some of his players to miss time in Training Camp, Bylsma spoke in support of the even on Wednesday.
"I think this is probably the best place for it to be, is in September," Bylsma said. "I think probably the best time for the guys to get together and be a part of a national team, a World Cup team and having the best players in the world competing against each other … I think it's an awesome showcase."
UPDATE (5:15 p.m.) - Eichel has been named to the North American preliminary roster.
McCABE OK AFTER HIT
Jake McCabe was back at practice on Wednesday after exiting the overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers with 3:39 remaining in the third period the night before. He had a couple of cuts on his face to show for the hit on Nail Yakupov that forced his exit, but said he was otherwise all right.
"He tried to cut to the middle and I hit him and as you can see on my face, his helmet went right into my head," McCabe said. "I'm sure I've had my fair share of hits where I've taken the bad end of it. This one, at least, you can see it on my face."
Fellow defenseman Cody Franson remained absent on Wednesday, having missed five games with a neck injury.
BYLSMA IMPRESSED WITH LEHNER'S ATTITUDE
Robin Lehner admitted that he'd by lying if the team's recent scoring struggles didn’t affect the way he's played in net, but his coach said that he hasn't seen any change in his attitude.
Bylsma recalled, for example, when the Sabres took the lead in San Jose on Friday and Lehner came over to the bench. In his words, Lehner was "harping on playing the right way and finishing it off."
"I don’t sense any frustration or any thought about the lack of run support for Robin right now in his mindset, in his demeanor," Bylsma said.
"He's been strong, been consistent in net and I'm getting used to Robin as a goaltender because he's the only one I've ever had who's come to the bench and been a cheerleader for the team, been a guy who's prodding the guys forward with his talk and demeanor."
9 Evander Kane – 15 Jack Eichel – 23 Sam Reinhart
82 Marcus Foligno – 22 Johan Larsson – 12 Brian Gionta
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 19 Cal O'Reilly – 28 Zemgus Girgensons
43 Daniel Catenacci – 17 David Legwand – 26 Matt Moulson
4 Josh Gorges – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe – 47 Zach Bogosian
25 Carlo Colaiacovo – 3 Mark Pysyk
40 Robin Lehner
31 Chad Johnson