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Improved all-around play has led to increased production for Ristolainen

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

ARLINGTON, Va. - Rasmus Ristolainen was blunt when asked whether his game has picked up since a loss to Colorado on Feb. 11, a game in which he was directly involved in three goals against and at one point saw his ice time limited exclusively to special teams. 

"It can't be worse than that," the defenseman said, "so obviously it's been a little better."

That may be true, but it also doesn't do justice to the fact that Ristolainen has gotten back to his usual high level of play in the five games since that loss to the Avalanche. He's scored four points in that stretch, including a goal and an assist against Detroit on Thursday.

Video: BUF@DET: Ristolainen scores on deflected point shot

The points are nice, but Phil Housley said they're more indicative of improvements in other areas on the ice.

"He has really responded well," Housley said. "I think his game has gotten to be back where it should be. Not because he's getting production. I think just his compete and his battle, he leans on guys, he's physical, just has more urgency in his game. Because of that I think he's getting rewarded in the production area."

In the game immediately following the Colorado loss, Ristolainen led a defensive effort that held Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos scoreless with just one shot on goal. He was matched up with another superstar in Alex Ovechkin on Monday - who he'll meet again when the Sabres visit the Washington Capitals on Saturday - and matched his physicality from beginning to end. 

Video: HOUSLEY: After Practice

It's an improvement from where he was at shortly after the All-Star break, but Ristolainen said there is still another level he can reach. What might that look like?

"I take charge," he said. "Everything works. Breaking out the puck well, making plays in our own zone. Just doing whatever it takes to win the game."

"It's a great attitude to have," Housley added. "I really like the way he's getting up in the play, in the rushes, joining the rush. I think he can do more of that. I think that's maybe what he's talking about. But he certainly has a good way of finding lanes, like the goal last night."

Against Detroit, Ristolainen recorded three hits and four blocked shots in addition to his two points. He broke up a potential goal for Henrik Zetterberg that would have tied the game late in the second period and came up with a key block of an Anthony Mantha shot from point-blank range in the third. 

Of course, when asked about the game, he brought up none of that, choosing instead to focus on the result: a 3-2 win in overtime. 

"Right now, what matters are the wins," he said. "It was a good battle."

Video: LAK@BUF: Ristolainen taps home loose puck in front

Road warriors

Video: Sabres Now (2/23/18)

With the win in Detroit, the Sabres are 5-0-1 in their last six road games. Housley said it's no coincidence that they've scored the first goal in all but one of those contests, which is a testament to their mentality to begin games away from home.

"It just seems that on the road, we just can focus," Housley said. "There's no distractions. We're on the bus together, we're going to the game together and we're focused on winning hockey games. At home, it just seems like the mentality right now, because of what's happened, it's tough to get out of that rut."

Some players have suggested as of late that, because of the team's struggles at home, they try to do too much in front the of the home crowd. Their wins on the road have come by virtue of simplicity, getting pucks deep in the offensive zone and limiting turnovers that feed transition. 

"We've got to get back to simplifying our game and keeping it simple out there, not manufacturing things that aren't there," Housley said. 

The fine line for Larry

Johan Larsson made up for it with an assist at the buzzer in overtime, but it was his minor penalty for tripping that gave the Red Wings the power play on which they tied the game late in the third period on Thursday. 

Larsson has now taken a minor penalty in six of eight games since he was suspended for a cross-check at home against Anaheim on Feb. 6. The trick for the Sabres, Housley said, is getting him to reel back the penalties while keeping an aggressive mentality.

"It's a fine line because when he plays with emotion he's really, really good," Housley said. "You can see it. He's aggressive, he attacks the game. The penalties we can do without, for sure, and that's one are we continue to talk with him [about]. 

"I look at that play, it's just all stick position. He rides a guy out and he just needs to get a stick back on the puck like we talked about. It's unfortunate it got caught up in his skates. We're going to continue to work on that with him."

Lines at practice

9 Evander Kane - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 23 Sam Reinhart
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 21 Kyle Okposo
20 Scott Wilson - 22 Johan Larsson - 29 Jason Pominville
67 Benoit Pouliot - 10 Jacob Josefson - 17 Jordan Nolan (13 Nicholas Baptiste)

82 Nathan Beaulieu - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
6 Marco Scandella - 8 Casey Nelson
4 Josh Gorges - 93 Victor Antipin 
41 Justin Falk

40 Robin Lehner
31 Chad Johnson

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