When Rasmus Ristolainen arrived at KeyBank Center Thursday morning, his teammates all knew it was his 22nd birthday. What they didn't know was later that night¬†he would play in his 200th NHL game.
"Holy smokes," came the comments from the defensive corner of the Buffalo Sabres locker room.
"That's impressive," his blue line partner Josh Gorges said. "He mentioned it this morning that it was also his 200th game on his birthday. I said wow, 200 at that age, really it's incredible. He's got so much future ahead of him but he's done a lot already. It's unique to see. I don't think there's too many players that can come in at 18 and stick and stay healthy and all those things. It's an early accomplishment."
Ristolainen became the fourth-youngest player to reach 200 NHL games with the Sabres when he suited up for Thursday's 4-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild. Forward Pierre Turgeon was the youngest, playing game No. 200 on Jan. 11, 1990 against Calgary when he was 20 years, 136 days old. Next up, defenseman Phil Housley, who was 20 years, 343 years old. Third is goaltender Tom Barrasso who was 21 years, 360 days old.
"It happens more and more in our league where players are playing their third, fourth and fifth year when they're under the age of 23 and Rasmus is one of those guys," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "He's turning 22 years old. I'm trying to look back to where I was when I was 22 years old and it wasn't 200 games in the National Hockey League."
Ristolainen was the Sabres first-round pick, eighth overall, in the 2013 NHL Draft. He went from Finland to North American pro hockey, splitting his first season between the Sabres and the Rochester Americans in the AHL. He was a regular in the Sabres lineup ever after, entering Thursday's game against the Minnesota Wild with 71 points on 19 goals and 52 assists.
To become a regular contributor on an NHL team as a teenage defenseman is a difficult proposition.
"It's usually a position where experience and knowing situations is key," Gorges said. "It isn't so much based on skating, shooting, passing skill like forwards. They can come in and their skill takes over. (Defensemen) have to be able to handle situations. You have to be able to handle the opposition and he's doing it against the best players which is another impressive thing.
"I think he's mature beyond his years. I don't know if that's because he's been in the league as long as I've known him that you don't think of him as a 22 year old. He doesn't act like it. He carries himself like a professional. He takes care of himself. I think from the first year to now you see him grow in that maturity and he has the ability. He has the skill, the strength, the skating but I think lately it's been his ability to stay calm in situations, not get too excited, make the right play when needed, make good plays under pressure. That's what makes him a special player."
Ristolainen, who re-signed with the Sabres just before the season, said he feels very comfortable with the Buffalo organization and with the city.
"I've been here a couple years so hopefully I've got a couple more hundred (games) left," Ristolainen said. "I think I got better after every year on both ends of the ice, defensively and offensively and that's what I try to do this year, too. Get that next step and help the team to reach the playoffs."
His biggest strength through the first six¬†games has been the power play where¬†he's nabbed five of his six assists.
"The power play has been pretty good," Ristolainen said. "We've scored some goals. I feel comfortable there with great players and I'd like to help the team more even strength too."
Ristolainen finished Thursday's game with five shots and five hits. He was a minus-1 (on the ice for the Wild's empty net goal) andd led the team in ice time playing 26 minutes, 43 seconds.
The Sabres were part of the¬†league-wide Hockey Fights Cancer initiative on Thursday. The game had a special meaning for Sabres' forward Marcus Foligno whose mother, Janis, died from breast cancer in 2009.
"It's a special day for myself, obviously. It touches home," Foligno said. "Losing my mother to breast cancer, this day means a lot to me. It's a little more special to play on a day like today. It makes you think about my mother and the hard work she put into my hockey career and getting me to the NHL so you think about her and you always play for her but on this day you want to play a little harder. It makes a special day."
The team's Hockey Fights Cancer warmup jerseys will be auctioned at auctions.NHL.com¬†while¬†Hockey Fights Cancer t-shirts, with proceeds to benefit Roswell Park Cancer Institute, will be for sale at the Sabres Store and Roswell Park and will also be available online at shop.onebuffalo.com.
Familiar faces were on the Minnesota Wild roster and have been enjoying success in the first two weeks of the season. Jason Pominville scored his 250th NHL goal on Tuesday and has three points (two goals, one assist) on the season. Pominville played¬†578 games for Buffalo and serving as team captain. Chris Stewart, who played with the Sabres in 2013-15, has five points (two goals, three assists)¬†this season including picking up a helper on Jason Zucker's goal in the first period.