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Mittelstadt's OT effort was a microcosm of Sabres' defensive success

Breaking down the center's game-winning sequence against San Jose

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Casey Mittelstadt said his friends sent him the clip to make fun of him. His roommate, Rasmus Dahlin, laughed when he heard the comparison. 

"Oh, he's Nick Lidstrom?" Dahlin said. "Nice."

The video in question was a breakdown by NHL Network analyst and former goaltender Kevin Weekes, who lauded the two-way effort from Mittelstadt that led to Jack Eichel's overtime goal against San Jose on Thursday. 

"That's a Nick Lidstrom-esque, defenseman-type read there," Weekes said during the segment, which you can watch below.

Tweet from @KevinWeekes: You @NHL Fans want to know the difference in the @BuffaloSabres ??No better example than to 280+ Ft of effort, determination and smarts by @CMittelstadt which leads to @Jackeichel15 GWG. Get your @joeylanova Pizza & Wings ready Western NY ! @NHLNetwork https://t.co/6sIhy4xsiZ

It's the sort of comparison that can draw chirps from friends when you're a 20-year-old who's just two seasons removed from playing high school hockey. It was also a point of emphasis from Ralph Krueger and his coaching staff when the Sabres met Wednesday morning. 

The play begins with Mittelstadt working to retrieve a puck behind his own net with a pair of Sharks surrounding him, one of which is six-time All-Star Erik Karlsson. Mittelstadt puts his head down and hustles up the ice as Karlsson emerges for a 2-on-1 rush, defended by Henri Jokiharju. 

Jokiharju drops to the ice, stalling Karlsson just long enough for Mittelstadt to complete his pursuit. The second-year center intercepts Karlsson's crossing pass, carries the puck into the neutral zone, circles back to give his linemates a chance to change, then hits Rasmus Ristolainen with a pass at the far blue line, setting the Sabres free on a game-winning, odd-man rush.

"I kind of was wincing for him seeing that it was Karlsson because a lot of times you're not going to catch him," Sabres forward Jimmy Vesey said. "But he put his head down and got back. I think Henri played the 2-on-1 very well, bought Casey that one extra second for him to get back. He gets the puck and we win the game."

Mittelstadt downplayed the sequence.  

"I saw Karlsson get the puck and they had a two-on-one," Mittelstadt said. "I pretty much had no choice but to go, I guess. I don't know, I don't think it's that big a deal. I think anyone on our team would've done it. I guess it's just something you got to do."

To Krueger, the idea that any member of the team would do the same thing is what made the play a big deal. Krueger cited the sequence as a microcosm of the dedication to playing without the puck that's made the Sabres so successful through their 8-1-1 start. 

"It was the main point in the meeting today," Krueger said. "The tracking that he did from our end back to the front of our net in stealing that puck, then delaying in the neutral zone so they got baited into making a line change and then turning it up ice really quickly on that opportunity.

"It definitely didn't get lost, because pretty much everything that's happening here on the positive offensively - five-on-five, four-on-four or three-on-three - is coming out of excellent defensive work and decisions that guys are making. That gets lost in the general analysis of a game - what happens, the tracking, the way the D are gapping up, and all of that is causing the opposition stress in that we're attacking them when they're quite weak, and that's what happened there."

Video: Ralph Krueger after practice (10/23/19)

The Sabres have talked about playing aggressively ever since Krueger took over as coach. It's their play away from the puck that allows them to do it. 

Defensemen feel able to play with tight gaps because they know there will be support to retrieve the puck. They pinch down low in the offensive zone because they can trust forwards to cycle back and take their place up top. 

"Across all four lines, we've tracked back well," Vesey said. "It's tough to play against that when you're the other team, when our D are staying up and the forwards are coming back. It's never fun.

"I think just coming back hard, you're in the right position a lot more often than not," added Conor Sheary. "I think we've just been creating turnovers and turning it into offense."

For an example, look at Mittelstadt's goal in San Jose on Saturday. Sheary hustles hard late in a shift to negate an icing, then Vesey tracks back to force a takeaway in the neutral zone before setting up a Jokiharju shot from the point.

Video: BUF@SJS: Mittelstadt scores on redirection

Krueger felt his team's commitment to playing without the puck was evident in the reaction the bench had to Mittelstadt's overtime effort on Saturday.

"What I do spend time on is the way our bench erupted when Casey backchecked," he said. "It was crazy. I mean, I'm watching the entire bench cheering Casey's drive back to our net. 

"I've spoken to [the media] a little bit about the life on our bench right now, and when you hear the players talk and use the word tracking in front of you in a three-on-three overtime situation and everybody's so excited and then it turns into a goal, it's that lead up to the goal that really makes you proud of what the group is doing as a coach."

As for Mittelstadt, he now has seven points in 10 games this season. Five have come in his last three outings, during which Krueger has seen an increased comfort in the centerman's defensive game. 

Did he ever think he'd be compared to a Hall of Fame defenseman like Lidstrom? Mittelstadt shrugged and laughed.

"Uh, no," he said. "I think that's my roommate's job."

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