With Eichel out, Mit­tel­stadt will cen­ter top line

The Buffalo News - - HOCKEY - By Lance Lysowski

Habits die hard. Or not at all. When Casey Mit­tel­stadt was thrust out of his com­fort zone by hav­ing to play left wing Satur­day in Colorado, the Buf­falo Sabres’ 20-year-old rookie cen­ter caught him­self skat­ing in the mid­dle of the ice a few times.

“I thought to my­self, ‘Yeah, I should prob­a­bly get out of here,’ “Mit­tel­stadt joked fol­low­ing the Sabres’ op­tional morn­ing skate Tues­day.

The ex­per­i­ment was short-lived. With Jack Eichel serv­ing a two-game sus­pen­sion, Mit­tel­stadt was back in the mid­dle of the ice and cen­ter­ing the Sabres’ top line Tues­day night against the Dal­las Stars in KeyBank Cen­ter.

Mit­tel­stadt could see time on the wing in the fi­nal 12 reg­u­lar-sea­son games af­ter Eichel re­turns, how­ever, his goals over the fi­nal three weeks re­volve around his play in the mid­dle of the ice.

“I think it’s im­por­tant to just keep pro­gress­ing,” Mit­tel­stadt added. “I’ve made good progress in ar­eas I’ve needed to. Keep mov­ing for­ward and get­ting bet­ter . ... I think that will put me in a good spot for next sea­son.”

Drafted eighth over­all in 2017, Mit­tel­stadt had 10 goals among 21 points with a mi­nus-10 rat­ing in 64 games en­ter­ing Tues­day. He had one shot on goal in 11 min­utes, 14 min­utes dur­ing a 5-4 shootout loss in Chicago last Thurs­day.

Mit­tel­stadt prac­ticed at left wing in Den­ver the fol­low­ing day, a move coach Phil Hous­ley said was fu­eled by cu­rios­ity.

The hope was a move to wing would al­low Mit­tel­stadt to use his skills to cre­ate more of­fen­sively since he would not have to worry about the ad­di­tional de­fen­sive re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of play­ing cen­ter.

It did not go as planned. Mit­tel­stadt played only 10 min­utes, 32 sec­onds in a 3-0 loss to the Avalanche. He was moved to Eichel’s wing with the Sabres fac­ing a twogoal deficit but fin­ished with only one shot on goal.

“I was just try­ing to find a spark, some­thing dif­fer­ent,” Hous­ley said. “I didn’t mind the way he played. He wasn’t very in­volved in the play. That’s why we tried to put him up with Jack, just to try to get a spark while we were down two.”

The con­cepts of play­ing wing aren’t for­eign to Mit­tel­stadt. A cen­ter must also make plays along the wall. While there are fewer de­fen­sive re­spon­si­bil­i­ties with play­ing wing, Mit­tel­stadt em­braces the chal­lenge of be­ing down the mid­dle.

He has made progress de­fen­sively, though con­sis­tency re­mains an is­sue. Mit­tel­stadt added he has grown more com­fort­able in the face­off cir­cle, de­spite his 39.8 win­ning per­cent­age en­ter­ing Tues­day. Rep­e­ti­tion has helped, but he also cred­ited the ad­vice of Vladimir Sobotka, whose 52.6 face­off win­ning per­cent­age is the best among qual­i­fy­ing Sabres.

“My num­bers haven’t been that good in the cir­cle, but I feel way more com­fort­able,” he said. “Rather than get­ting beat clean there are a lot of 50-50s, which is a good place to start. Other than that, de­fen­sive-zone stuff, which has been a pretty big topic all year. Those are ar­eas I feel like I’m do­ing bet­ter. Keep pro­gress­ing and keep get­ting bet­ter next year.”

While Hous­ley could ex­per­i­ment with Mit­tel­stadt on the left side again, the Sabres’ long-term plan is un­likely to change.

They lack depth down the mid­dle af­ter trad­ing Ryan O’Reilly to St. Louis, and are hope­fully Mit­tel­stadt will flour­ish with more NHL ex­pe­ri­ence.

De­fense­man Casey Nel­son was a healthy scratch Tues­day night

De­fense­man Tay­lor Fe­dun, whom the Sabres traded to Dal­las for a con­di­tional sev­enth-round draft pick in Novem­ber, was a healthy scratch for the Stars Tues­day night. Fe­dun, 30, has three goals among 10 points with a mi­nus-1 rat­ing in 43 games since the trade.

He was the odd man out on a crowded ros­ter in Rochester and has helped the Stars sur­vive a num­ber of in­juries on their blue line. Dal­las coach Jim Mont­gomery cred­ited Fe­dun, Miro Heiska­nen and Ro­man Po­lak with hav­ing “re­ally saved our sea­son.”

“What al­lows Tay­lor to be so ef­fec­tive for us is his hockey sense, his com­pete and his un­der­stand­ing po­si­tion­ally of how we want to play,” Mont­gomery said. “And he’s a great team­mate in the locker room.”

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