Ris­to­lainen piles on the min­utes, and the nasty, against Colorado

The Buffalo News - - SPORTS - By Mike Har­ring­ton NEWS SPORTS RE­PORTER

CHICAGO – Ras­mus Ris­to­lainen has played big min­utes in his ca­reer be­fore. But an eye-pop­ping ice time total of 30:42 Tues­day in Denver came with lots ex­tra at­tached to it. More snarl. More bite. Even af­ter the whis­tle. He was the top-pair mon­ster that Buffalo Sabres fans need to see ev­ery night on de­fense.

“I want to play as many min­utes as I can and try to find that ‘Beast Mode’,” Ris­to­lainen said af­ter prac­tice Thurs­day in United Cen­ter. “That’s how you feel when you play a lot and you don’t get tired. You just want to run over ev­ery­one and make plays.”

Ris­to­lainen’s ice time – which fea­tured a whop­ping 11:09 of spe­cial teams time – was the sec­ond-high­est of his ca­reer in reg­u­la­tion. And he set a ca­reer-best with a plus-4 rat­ing in the Sabres’ 4-2 vic­tory.

Coach Phil Hous­ley cer­tainly took note of it, agree­ing that it was one of Ris­to­lainen’s best games of the sea­son and hop­ing he’ll see more Fri­day night when the Sabres play the Chicago Black­hawks.

“He had an edge to his game and he does that quite of­ten,” Hous­ley said. “He’s a true com­peti­tor but it was an ex­tra at­ti­tude in his game and it’s great to see. We’re at a point where we’ve got to scrape for ev­ery­thing right now and that’s the at­ti­tude we have to go into games with.”

“That’s the way he has to play,” said de­fense part­ner Marco Scan­della. “He’s a horse out there. Big body. Phys­i­cal. He can re­ally skate. When he’s at his best, he’s play­ing a phys­i­cal game and mov­ing the puck well. He just goes out and com­petes. It’s a sta­ple for him.”

So what mo­ti­vated Ris­to­lainen? There was a bounce­back from a sub­par set of week­end games against Pitts­burgh, in­clud­ing his ma­jor flubbed pass that di­rectly led to a Sid­ney Crosby goal on Fri­day night. And it was also see­ing old friends on the other side.

Ex-Sabres draft pick Nikita Zadorov and Avs winger Mikko Ran­ta­nen spend part of their


sum­mer work­ing out with Ris­to­lainen in Fin­land. One of Ris­to­lainen’s big­gest hits of the game came when he lev­eled Ran­ta­nen in front of the Buffalo net dur­ing the first pe­riod.

“It’s al­ways nice to play against good friends,” Ris­to­lainen said. “There’s a lit­tle ex­tra there.”

Ris­to­lainen’s big flub against the Pen­guins came Fri­day night in a game where he only had one shot on goal. But he played 28:11 in the re­match on Satur­day, col­lect­ing five shots and 11 at­tempts. It was more of the same Tues­day with four shots on goal and eight at­tempts.

“It was a good re­bound on his part,” Hous­ley said. “There was some dis­ap­point­ment about the se­ries against Pitts­burgh and some­times that can back you off when you make a mis­take but he came to the fore­front. It was re­ally good to see him re­spond like that.”

Ris­to­lainen has no goals and seven as­sists this sea­son but has 53 shots on goal. The an­a­lyt­ics com­mu­nity has con­tin­u­ally ques­tioned whether he’s top-pair wor­thy and a 43.8 per­cent Corsi rat­ing last year helped make that point for them. But that fig­ure has jumped to 50.8 per­cent this year – and is at 59 per­cent the last two games.

Ris­to­lainen wants to keep work­ing to gen­er­ate of­fense but he knows Fri­day’s game will be more about manag­ing the puck in the de­fen­sive zone so the Black­hawks can’t do the kind of dam­age peo­ple have be­come ac­cus­tomed to see­ing over the years.

“We have to man­age the puck well, get a third for­ward back to help the D,” Ris­to­lainen said. “You have to play in their zone. They don’t want to play there. They want to get the puck and go. We have to play there if we want to win.”

Sharon Can­til­lon/Buffalo News

The Sabres’ Ras­mus Ris­to­lainen fights Mark Letestu of the Oil­ers for the puck dur­ing an Ed­mon­ton power play in the sec­ond pe­riod on Nov. 24.

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