SAN JOSE -- The minutes keep piling up for Rasmus Ristolainen and so do the points. With 13 games left in the season, the 22-year-old has already set career highs in assists and points in his third full NHL campaign.
It's easy to find nay-sayers who insist Ristolainen's game has regressed over the second half of the Buffalo Sabres' season on the theory that coach Dan Bylsma has played him too many minutes. The 22-year-old has repeatedly said this season he will play every minute he can get and reiterated that here Tuesday.
"It feels great to me," Ristolainen said before the Sabres game Tuesday against the San Jose Sharks. "You want to earn as many as possible. Whenever they put me out there, I will play."
Ristolainen played 32 minutes, 7 seconds in Saturday's 5-3 win over Columbus, a game that saw the Sabres get thin on defense after Zach Bogosian was hit with a misconduct following a scrum to end the second period and Cody Franson missed time after being struck in the face with a puck.
"So it was kind of a unique situation that led to him getting all those minutes," noted Bylsma. "Obviously he's a workhorse for us and he's going to get those opportunities. Hopefully we'll keep a full group back there."
It was, however, the sixth time this year Ristolainen has cracked 30 minutes. He entered Tuesday's game fourth in the NHL in ice time, averaging exactly 27 minutes per game. The only three players ahead of him were Winnipeg's Dustin Byfuglien (27:24), Los Angeles' Drew Doughty (27:16) and Minnesota's Ryan Suter (27:01).
"It's a credit to him to play the number of minutes he plays, especially when you consider it's mostly against top lines," said Franson. "And then you look at our power play and it's been a huge piece to our puzzle. He's done a great job with it.
Ristolainen entered Tuesday with five goals while holding sixth place overall among NHL defensemen in assists (38) and a share of 10th in points (43). He was Buffalo's overall leader in assists and tied for third in points. He also came into the game with 23 power-play assists, tied for the league lead with Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman and Philadelphia's Claude Giroux.
Ristolainen, however, remains a bit of a conundrum to the analytics community. It's not hard to find Web sites lambasting his play because his Corsi rating is hovering around 43 percent for the season, meaning opponents have 57 percent of all shot attempts when he's on the ice. And he's still carrying a minus-7 rating, although a good chunk of that came during his career-worst minus-5 outing last week against Philadelphia.
Still, he's a young player who is already playing 215 minutes more than any other Buffalo defender. And he was a minus-21 player last season.
"It wasn't a good game at all, no matter what you look at," he said of the Philadelphia flop. "But I don't look at the plus-minus too much at all. Stuff happens. You want to get a little bounceback after that game, play at my level and move past it."
Ristolainen did that with three points in the two games against Columbus. He has at least a point in 14 of the last 19 games, with the bulk of that production coming on the power play. The Sabres entered Tuesday leading the NHL at 23.7 percent trying to finish No. 1 for the first time since 1992. The game-winning goal Saturday against the Blue Jackets came on the power play as Evander Kane scored with 2:29 left to snap a 3-3 tie.
"We feel pretty good about ourselves on the power play," Ristolainen said. "We know where each other is on the ice and have some set plays that have worked well. A couple games have been lost because we haven't scored on some opportunities late in the third, but the last game was a game-winner for us so that was really good."
According to a report on Sportsnet.Ca, the Sabres are expected to sign 24-year-old defenseman Viktor Antipin off the Magnitogorsk roster in the KHL. Sportsnet reporter Elliotte Friedman said the Sabres were battling with Calgary, Chicago, Columbus and Pittsburgh for the services of Antipin.
Antipin has played for the same KHL club for the last five full seasons, collecting six goals and 18 assists this year in 59 games during the regular season and still competing in the playoffs. He is listed by Eliteprospects.com at 5-foot-11, 179 pounds and is a left-handed shot. He has played for Russia the last two years in the World Championships.
If signed, Antipin would not join the Sabres until next season. The Sabres were trying to add an immediate college free agent but TSN reported late Tuesday night that St. Lawrence senior Gavin Bayreuther was expected to sign with the Dallas Stars rather than come to Buffalo. Bayreuther is second in the nation this year in points per game among defensemen with 29 points in 30 games.
Franson played Tuesday's game after taking a 20-stitch cut on the right side of his face just below the lip when struck Saturday. He tried a full face shield in practice Monday but decided against wearing it in the game.
"The mask didn't really work. It sat too high and kept hitting me in the chin," Franson said. "I think if I was to take a hit with that on, the mask would do more harm than good. I'm going to play without it and hope for the best."
Bylslma marveled about San Jose defenseman Brent Burns, a Hart Trophy candidate who entered the game with 70 points, just five off the NHL lead.
"He's a bit of a hybrid player defenseman/rover/forward," Bylsma said. "Trying to nail him down on the ice is a futile proposition for anybody. His shot is no different. He shoots the one-timer ... walks the middle and finds seams in lanes to find guys' sticks. He's got the one-timer on the power play where he slides over to shoot the one-timer a la" Alex "Ovechkin. It's not just saying, 'This guy delivers a fastball and we can look for it down the middle.' He does it a ton of different ways."
Hudson Fasching, called up Monday from Rochester, was the Sabres' lone healthy scratch. The Sabres flew to Los Angeles immediately after the game and will practice Wednesday in suburban El Segundo before meeting the Kings Thursday night in Staples Center. Buffalo has suffered 2-0 shutout defeats in each of its last three visits to Staples, which was the site of the All-Star Game in January.