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How Lawrence Pilut earned big-time matchups against the Maple Leafs

Rookie defenseman played majority of his minutes against Matthews, Tavares

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Lawrence Pilut has no shortage of defining qualities. He's a dynamic skater on the ice and an affable personality off it, yet it's another trait that's stuck out most about the rookie defenseman to Sabres coach Phil Housley.

"I just like the competitive nature of Lawrence," Housley said. "He's a competitor in every sense of the word. … He fights for the puck, he wins his battles. He attacks the game the right way."

It's that competitive nature that equipped Pilut for the workload that's been bestowed upon him through the first three games of his NHL career. As the injury bug has continued to bite the Sabres defense, Pilut has seen his responsibilities increase with each passing contest. 

Video: Sabres Now (12/6/18)

Pilut was paired with Rasmus Ristolainen to begin Tuesday's game against Toronto, with the duo used primarily against the line of Patrick Marleau, Auston Matthews and Kasperi Kapanen. He had a rotating cast of partners once Casey Nelson went down with an injury, limiting the Sabres to five defensemen, but the matchups remained difficult. 

Of the 20:58 Pilut skated at even strength on Tuesday, 15:55 came with either Matthews or John Tavares on the ice for Toronto, according to NaturalStatTrick.com. He finished the night with a team-high 61.11 Corsi-for percentage, which bumped up to 76.47 percent during his 9:48 of shared ice time with Matthews. 

It didn't happen by accident. Assistant coach Steve Smith, who handles the Buffalo defense, said the decision to play Pilut against Matthews and Tavares had its roots in the Sabres' prior game against Nashville.

"There were a few test runs where we threw him out against some pretty solid competition and he stood up to the test," Smith said. "Going up against [Toronto}, we knew we were going to have young guys who we're going to have to go up against them one way or another and as the game progressed, both of the kids (Pilut and Rasmus Dahlin) did very well so we continued to play them."

Smith came away impressed with what he sawa after going over Pilut's clips from the Toronto game on Thursday morning. He complimented the young defenseman's decision making and poise with the puck, echoing comments we heard from Housley back in training camp. 

That poise showed in his own zone, where Pilut displayed an ability to make quick decisions under pressure. In one instance, he spun to evade a forechecking Matthews and quickly found an outlet in the neutral zone:

"I want to play against the best all the time," Pilut said. "It really gives you an extra edge when you have that winning mentality when you go into every battle, almost winning it before it's done."

Pilut led the AHL with 22 points in his first 15 games for Rochester at the time of his first recall on Nov. 21, teasing the offensive potential he had previously shown while playing in the Swedish Hockey League. 
He's yet to tally his first point in the NHL, but it's not for a lack of trying.

"I think he really wants to get involved offensively," Smith said. "I'm actually kind of pulling him back at this point in time, trying to convince him that if he wants to stay in our lineup, he has to be solid defensively. We have a couple of guys who are pretty darn good offensively and we expect him to pay close attention to the defensive side of the game. 

"I heard a saying once that if you've got a pair of aces, play them. If you've got a pair of deuces, hang back. ... When he has an opportunity, we're going to let him go. He's just got to find those opportunities because in this game, the mistakes that are made with wrong reads can end up in your net pretty quickly, versus the American League."

Smith felt that Pilut did a good job of taking what was given against the Maple Leafs. He stayed on the right side of bodies and showed a willingness to dump the puck into the corner when the situation called for it, but also found instances to add to the rush.

He created a scoring opportunity for Evan Rodrigues on this play, lofting a pass to the net-front after carrying the puck over the offensive blue line.

After evading Kapanen in his own zone on this play in the third period, he joined the rush and cut to the Toronto net in search of a rebound.

Pilut admitted he's easing into the offensive side of the game, but he feels like he's on the right track.

"I think I'm trying to improve on it as fast as I can and obviously, I have some steps to go, but I'm just going to keep working on it and trying to be more and more comfortable," he said. "Right now, I have a good feeling. I just want to keep going on that feeling."

 

Thursday's practice

Jason Pominville was a full participant after missing the past two games with an upper-body injury. He skated on a line with Conor Sheary and Casey Mittelstadt and said he expects to be ready for the team's game against Philadelphia on Saturday. 

Jack Eichel, Zach Bogosian and Carter Hutton took maintenance days. Nelson is week-to-week after sustaining an upper-body injury on Tuesday, while Jake McCabe's upper-body injury has been redefined as week-to-week as well. 

Marco Scandella, out for the past five games with an upper-body injury, remained absent from practice but is day-to-day. Matt Hunwick (neck) is also day-to-day but has been a full participant since last Thursday.

"Every day we have to take a look at him," Housley said of Hunwick, who has missed the entire season up to this point. "I think he looks really good right now. He's skating well, he's into the practices now, we've just got to polish him up a little bit more because he has been off for such a long time."

Here's how the full lineup looked at practice:

53 Jeff Skinner - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 23 Sam Reinhart
43 Conor Sheary - 37 Casey Mittelstadt - 29 Jason Pominville
17 Vladimir Sobotka - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 21 Kyle Okposo
10 Patrik Berglund - 22 Johan Larsson - 72 Tage Thompson

24 Lawrence Pilut - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
48 Matt Hunwick - 26 Rasmus Dahlin 
82 Nathan Beaulieu - 81 Remi Elie*

35 Linus Ullmark

*Extra forward skating on defense
 

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