In his return from a 10-game absence against Edmonton on Friday night, Rasmus Ristolainen's stat line included just about everything one could ask for from a top-pair defenseman. He kept up with his league-leading pace at 27:32 of ice time, recorded two assists, blocked six shots and delivered five shots on goal.
The one feat that eluded him, and has eluded all of Buffalo's defensemen this season, is a goal of his own.
"I've been thinking about it personally for myself, why I haven't scored," Ristolainen said. "I've had a lot of shots, some chances ... I've got to keep working, keep shooting. Early in the year we maybe were struggling with our net-front presence, and I feel that now it's been there. We've got to keep shooting, and one day it will go in, for sure."
Video: Sabres Now (11/27/17)
When Phil Housley was brought in to coach the Sabres, he came with the expectation that the team's defensemen would factor heavily into its offense. Housley was credited with aiding the development of players like Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis as an assistant coach in Nashville, both of whom were key cogs in a defense corps that helped lead the Predators to the Stanley Cup Final last season.
In that sense, it might come as a surprise that the Sabres have yet to receive a goal from one of their defensemen now 24 games into their season. Ask Marco Scandella, however, and he'll tell you there are a set of factors that suggest those goals are coming.
"It's definitely coming," Scandella said. "We've been shooting the puck. We've just got to keep doing that. Forwards are going in front of the net too, blocking the goalie's vision, but we haven't gotten lucky yet. It's been a bad stretch for that but as soon as they start going in it's going to open the floodgates, in my opinion. We're going to be scoring a bunch."
Establishing a consistent net-front presence has taken time for the Sabres, and it's very much a two-way street. Forwards need to get to the hard areas around the net in order for shots from the point to have a chance, but shots also need to come through often enough to make it worth their while.
We've begun to see both of those things occur on a more regular basis. Against Montreal on Saturday, the Sabres had four defensemen tally at least four shot attempts: Ristolainen and Nathan Beaulieu generated five apiece, while Scandella and Jake McCabe both had four.
The next step, Housley said, is to improve the quickness with which those shots are taken. The Sabres had 30 of their 78 shot attempts blocked against the Canadiens.
"The thing is, our D are trying to get pucks through," Housley said. "In this league, there's not only the first layer but you've got a second layer of [shot blockers] so you've got to do things quicker. I'd like to see our D continue to work on trying to find that shot lane and deliver the puck a lot quicker so that teams can't get into the shot lane."
Video: After Practice: HOUSLEY
With that being said, not all defensive goals come from the blue line. The Predators defensemen excelled in their ability to activate both on the rush and in the offensive zone, be it jumping up to take a shot or pinching along the boards to maintain possession.
Scandella said he was used to being asked to activate offensively during his time with the Minnesota Wild, but it's a relatively new ask for the rest of Buffalo's defensemen. We saw them work to create that habit during training camp, but an onslaught of injuries has delayed the process.
"It just has to feel natural, so it's taking a little bit of time," Scandella said. "We had a few guys out of the lineup and we were playing - I wouldn't say safe - but we weren't going to take that many risks out there just because we had a few guys out and we were trying to give the team the best chance to win.
"Now that we've got a couple guys back, we're building it in practice. We've just got to make it natural. It's not about how fast you go, it's about timing. That's hockey. Reads, reactions, but it's about inches. If you're too quick on the play, it's not going to happen. If you're too slow on the play, it's not going to happen. We just have to find a happy medium."
Ristolainen has already displayed a willingness to jump in on the rush in his last two games, and the anticipated return of Zach Bogosian should help in that regard as well. Bogosian's skating ability and shot mentality looked like a good fit in Housley's system in camp, but he has yet to play during the regular season due to a lower-body injury.
Bogosian has been skating with the team as of late, and Housley said he'll be a game-time decision for Buffalo's contest against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday.
"I really liked the way Zach was playing before he got injured in camp," Housley said. "I thought he was bringing a speed game and a powerful game, a physical game. He was willing to get up in the play and make things happen.
"We've been missing that."
Housley said Saturday that the Edmonton game may have been Ristolainen's best of the season, and Scandella agreed that it was an example of the multi-faceted game the pair is capable of bringing on a consistent basis.
The duo of Ristolainen and Scandella played a key role in holding Oilers superstar Connor McDavid scoreless with just three shot attempts, while also factoring into the offense and helping with a 3-for-3 night on the penalty kill.
"I feel like that's what he can do night in and night out," Scandella said. "Shutting down the best line on the other team, blocking shots, being heavy with our big bodies. We can both skate so we just have to bring it every night."
Josefson out 4-to-6 weeks
Housley announced that forward Jacob Josefson will miss four to six weeks with an ankle injury after not returning for the second period in Montreal on Saturday. Josefson had scored a goal and an assist in two contests since returning from a prior injury that forced him to miss 15 games.
"It's tough," Housley said. "The way he came back and the way he was skating and that line in particular with [Jordan] Nolan and [Kyle] Okposo was really showing some signs of contributing offensively. Just their overall play in the zone, a lot of good possession numbers for them. It's difficult when you lose a guy like that, who sort of put everyone in the right seat. We'll have to deal with it and move forward."
Griffith clears waivers
Forward Seth Griffith cleared waivers and has been reassigned to Rochester, the team announced Monday. Griffith scored two goals and an assist in 18 games with Buffalo. He scored 44 points (10+34) in 38 AHL games for Toronto last season.
"I think he certainly had a really good opportunity," Housley said. "He's really a gifted scorer, talented and very fast. A lot of the games when he had opportunities to really take a hard look and he had open ice to make a play or shoot the puck, he was almost looking to pass. Obviously when you're not doing well you're going to make changes."
With Josefson out and Griffith in Rochester, the Sabres are without an extra forward on their NHL roster. Housley did not rule out a recall prior to Tuesday's game against Tampa Bay, but Matt Moulson practiced both on the fourth line and on the power play on Monday.
Housley said Moulson will be a game-time decision against the Lightning.
9 Evander Kane - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
67 Benoit Pouliot - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
17 Jordan Nolan - 22 Johan Larsson - 29 Jason Pominville
26 Zemgus Girgensons - 51 Kyle Criscuolo - 26 Matt Moulson
6 Marco Scandella - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
19 Jake McCabe - 93 Victor Antipin
82 Nathan Beaulieu - 41 Justin Falk
4 Josh Gorges - 47 Zach Bogosian / 5 Matt Tennyson
40 Robin Lehner
31 Chad Johnson