The Buffalo Sabres have their top defenseman back, and just in time to face one of the NHL's most talented forwards.
Rasmus Ristolainen will make his return to the lineup for the Sabres when they host Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers at KeyBank Center on Friday night. Ristolainen has missed the last nine games since sustaining an upper-body injury on Nov. 2.
A couple of stats to illustrate Ristolainen's significance to the Sabres: He leads the NHL with an average ice time of 27:09 in 13 games this season, and despite his long absence, his five points tie him with Marco Scandella for the team lead in scoring by a defenseman.
Video: Preview: BUF vs EDM (11/24/17)
According to Sabres coach Phil Housley, there will be no need for an acclimation period in terms of Ristolainen's responsibilities.
"When he says he's ready, he's ready," Housley said. "We're going to play him in all situations like we have in the past and I don't see anything wrong moving forward."
Josh Gorges is expected to serve as a healthy scratch to make room for Ristolainen in the lineup. Casey Nelson was reassigned to Rochester Friday morning after serving as the team's seventh defenseman since his recall on Nov. 16.
Ristolainen will reassume his position alongside Marco Scandella on Buffalo's top defensive pair. It's safe to assume the pair will be matched up often with McDavid, the reigning Hart Trophy winner who ranks sixth in the NHL with 28 points (10+18) this season.
"He's one of the top players in the world right now and it's a huge challenge," Ristolainen said. "I'm excited and ready for it."
Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with GMC Gamenight on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 550. Puck drop is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Sabres, Oilers looking to rebound
Video: HOUSLEY: Pregame Interview
Both Buffalo and Edmonton enter Friday night in the midst of admittedly disappointing seasons, ranked second and third-last in the league with 14 and 18 points, respectively. The Oilers did, however, manage to rebound from an 8-3 loss in St. Louis with a 6-2 win in Detroit on Wednesday.
The Sabres, 0-5-2 in their last seven games, will be looking to make this their rebound performance. Emotions were high following their 5-4 loss to Minnesota on Wednesday, but the collective feeling seems to be that the honesty displayed in a postgame meeting that night left the players with a better understanding of what needs to change.
"It's great to see that the group in there sort of has their backs against the wall at this time in the season and they're trying to work it out," Housley said. "It shows a lot of care level in that room. I think they have to work it out together because just the execution overall, the game plan, has to be better for 60 minutes. I think they realize that.
"It's good to see their emotions high. I would feel they're going to respond well tonight. We'll see where that takes us."
Benoit Pouliot, an Oiler for the past three seasons, compared Buffalo's early-season struggles to his first campaign in Edmonton, when the Oilers' start snowballed into a 62-point campaign.
That being said, Pouliot was also a part of Edmonton's playoff run last season and seemed adamant in his belief that the Sabres have the talent to turn their season around.
"One hundred percent we can," Pouliot said. "We've got great players, a good team. I've been on a lot of teams and this team is very skilled, very hard working. We've just got to work in the game like we work in practice and we'll be fine. It's something that's a lot of mental stuff more than physical. I think it's all up in our heads right now and we've got to figure it out."
With Ristolainen playing on a pair with Scandella, Justin Falk will slide down to a pair alongside Nathan Beaulieu. Falk spent the bulk of his season thus far playing alongside Scandella in Ristolainen's absence, and his average ice time of 18:12 is his highest mark since his age 23 season in 2011-12.
"Justin, he's a battler," Housley said. "He brings what he can bring every night. He brings a physical element. He's not afraid to put his body in harm's way blocking shots and he's going to try to give you everything he has."
Here's how the rest of the lineup is expected to look:
9 Evander Kane - 15 Jack Eichel - 29 Jason Pominville
67 Benoit Pouliot - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 23 Sam Reinhart
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 22 Johan Larsson - 51 Kyle Criscuolo
17 Jordan Nolan - 10 Jacob Josefson - 21 Kyle Okposo
6 Marco Scandella - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
19 Jake McCabe - 93 Victor Antipin
82 Nathan Beaulieu - 41 Justin Falk
40 Robin Lehner
31 Chad Johnson