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