Rest is not a typical word in the vocabulary of Rasmus Ristolainen.
The Buffalo Sabres defenseman is a type of Ironman on the ice. He plays an average of 26 minutes, 42 seconds per game. which ranks fifth in the NHL. He plays against top players. He's a offensive force from the blue line on the power play. He's a key penalty killer when the Sabres need a defensive lock down. He often seems to get better as the game goes on.
But for the last three games, Ristolainen was shut down, suspended by the league for his hit on Pittsburgh Penguins forward Jake Guentzel on March 21.
He returns to the lineup Sunday afternoon as the Sabres host the New York Islanders at 3 p.m. in KeyBank Center. And he is raring to go.
"I don't like resting, but obviously I can't say it didn't feel good," Ristolainen said Saturday afternoon after the team practiced for about an hour in HarborCenter. "I got some good sleep, a couple days off so I feel really fresh right now."
Ristolainen didn't spend much time up in the press box watching his teammates play.
"I don't really like watching. You can't do much. You want to be there with the guys," Ristolainen said. "Actually most of the time I was working out during the game but I was watching the power play. It's easier when you watch and actually they played pretty well."
His suspension came off an interference call when Ristolainen went to hit Guentzel, who was set to receive a pass. But the puck was tipped and never made it to Guentzel. Ristolainen didn't know the play had been broken up until too late and went backwards into Guentzel, who left the game with a concussion.
But the suspension won't leave him second-guessing the physical nature of his game.
"No. Not going to change," the usually terse Ristolainen said.
Meanwhile, a fresh Ristolainen could be a dangerous Ristolainen for opponents.
Along with his physical play, Ristolainen is a key for the Sabres offense, particularly on the power play. He entered Friday tied for 30th among all NHL skaters with 39 assists. He has recorded an assist on 21 percent of the Sabres' goals this season. Only one Sabres' defenseman has ever recorded an assist on more than 20 percent of his teammates’ goals – Phil Housley (22.6 percent) in 1989-90.
And when all is said and done, it's good to have Ristolainen back.
"Well, you've missed a guy for three games that plays in every situation – plays against the other team's best players, power play, penalty kill and 25 to 27 minutes," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "That's a lot to miss. Him coming back into our lineup, that's what we're going to get. Get a guy who does all those things for our team, is all those things for our team and is a big part of the success of our team.
"In his stead I think," Dmitry "Kulikov did a nice job of stepping in on the power play unit and did a nice job. With Risto out of there it gave opportunity for other guys to play more minutes in different situations. But it's a guy that you can't replace."
While there's no replacing Ristolainen, the Sabres were able to overcome his absence, winning two of three games during his suspension.
"To be honest when you look at those three games, knowing who we were missing, I think collectively as a team we played a better all-around game," said defenseman Josh Gorges. "I thought our forwards did an unbelievable job these last few games of hunting down loose pucks on the forecheck, keeping pucks in the offensive zone which means we do less work which is always great as a defenseman. It makes our job so much easier. And then when it came to us, I think we just really tried to keep the game simple, we tried to keep our shifts short, get everyone involved and just roll."
So what changes with the return of Ristolainen?
"It shouldn't change anything," Gorges sasid. "I think we've had some success recently because of the way we played. And that's a recipe that we have to understand moving forward. We can't rely on one factor of our game, whether it be the power play to score us a goal or one line to go out there and win us a game. Recently it's been four lines playing, six D rolling, goaltending's doing its job. Just playing simple, smart hockey. There's no secret to it. We're not doing anything fancy. We're getting out there. We're working. We're trying to win our one-on-on battles, win your shift and then you go out and the next line continues that."