There's an inside joke in the Buffalo Sabres' dressing room about the guys from Minnesota. We'll let Casey Mittelstadt explain.
"I think if you're from Minnesota, you love Minnesota more than anything," Mittelstadt said after practice on Wednesday. "It's pretty much what it comes down to. All the guys make fun of us, but we talk it about how good it is. It's kind of a joke in the locker room but I think we're serious."
It's a sentiment shared by Mittelstadt and Kyle Okposo, two natives of the St. Paul area who just happen to sit next to each other in the Sabres room. Both players attended the University of Minnesota under coach Don Lucia. Both were top-10 picks who came into the NHL as 19-year-olds.
Come to think of it, maybe their arrangement in the dressing room isn't just a matter of coincidence. The Sabres resituated the locations of players' stalls prior to this season, spreading their veteran leaders out and placing them alongside younger players. Okposo fell between Mittelstadt and Evan Rodrigues.
They certainly have no shortage of things to talk about. Okposo laughed when asked what he's learned about his young teammate.
"He's just a fun-loving guy," Okposo said. "He's got a good head on his shoulders. He's confident in his abilities, which makes him really good. He's really slippery as a player. Just as a person, he's young, he's a young guy. He's got a lot of growing up to do.
"Playing in the NHL at 19, that's not easy. I was right there in the same position. He's going to come into his own, but he's got a lot of guys around him to help him do that."
Video: Sabres Now (11/7/18)
Okposo recalls how helpful it was to have veterans at his side when he broke into the league with the New York Islanders. Guys like Richard Park, Doug Weight and Bill Guerin helped him learn to deal with the highs and lows of an 82-game season.
Mittelstadt credits Okposo with having that same kind of presence.
"I think he's been through a lot of the same things I have," Mittelstadt said. "He's been really good. I think overall as a group, all the veterans have been really good, but I think he's definitely gone out of his way to check on me and make sure I'm doing OK, help out with things.
"Playing with him helps too. We're different players but coming from the same area it seems like you always think the same or play a little bit similar to those guys. It should be good. Obviously, he's a great guy and he's been great to me so far."
Mittelstadt is expected to center a line with Okposo and Conor Sheary in Montreal on Thursday. Sabres coach Phil Housley said it's been common in the games Okposo's played with Mittelstadt to see the two talking on the bench between shifts.
"I talk to him quite a bit," Okposo said. "I know how passionate he is. I love it. I tell him all the time, don't discount your instincts. He's such a powerful offensive player in what he can do, and you can never discount your instincts.
"At the same time, that play away from the puck and being good defensively, he's definitely committed to it. He's going to be a really good player."
Video: HOUSLEY: After Practice
Housley said that Nathan Beaulieu will return to the lineup against his former team in Montreal on Thursday. The defenseman has only appeared in one game since Oct. 18 but has spent the last two practices skating on a pair with Rasmus Dahlin.
"I think it's time," Housley said. "I think he's been really working hard. He's had a great attitude the last week and he's come to work and he's trying to get better. … I just think his attitude and his work level has risen the last week, and that's why he's getting an opportunity."
Here's how the full lineup looked on Wednesday:
53 Jeff Skinner - 9 Jack Eichel - 29 Jason Pominville
43 Conor Sheary - 37 Casey Mittelstadt - 21 Kyle Okposo
71 Evan Rodrigues - 17 Vladimir Sobotka - 23 Sam Reinhart
10 Patrik Berglund - 22 Johan Larsson - 28 Zemgus Girgensons / 72 Tage Thompson
19 Jake McCabe - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
6 Marco Scandella - 4 Zach Bogosian
26 Rasmus Dahlin - 82 Nathan Beaulieu
81 Remi Elie* - 8 Casey Nelson
40 Carter Hutton
35 Linus Ullmark
*Extra forward skating on defense