ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The Buffalo Sabres lost Rasmus Ristolainen for more than 50 minutes Thursday night and you wonder if they might lose their No. 1 defenseman for even longer than that.
All on a play that was originally called a two-minute minor and probably shouldn't have gone past that.
Ristolainen hit Minnesota's Mikko Koivu going across the middle midway through the first period and it's unclear what caushed a large gash about Koivu's mouth. There was some thought in the Buffalo dressing room it was Koivu's own stick. Replays seemed to show it was Ristolainen's visor. Whatever the case, the blood seemed to changed the mind of officials.
From initially handing Ristolainen two minutes for interference, the stripes had a confab and suddenly changed their minds to a major penalty and a game misconduct.
Now, the Sabres were thoroughly outclassed much of the night in a 6-2 loss to the Wild at XCel Energy Center. And they were already down 2-0 when Ristolainen's penalty was assessed with 9:44 left in the first period. But losing their key guy on the blueline was a backbreaker, and you wonder if the NHL's Department of Player Safety is going to have something to say too.
"The good thing is he isn't injured," Ristolainen said of Koivu, who was stitched up and returned to the game to score Minnesota's fifth goal. "I tried not to hurt him. It just stinks to get kicked out of the game and you can't help the guys. First it was a two-minute, then they discussed it more and said I'm done for the night. I'm not happy I couldn't help."
Coach Phil Housley was furious with the change.
"I totally disagreed with that. The orginal call was two minutes for interference," Housley said. "Risto is not a guy that's going to go out and try to hurt somebody. The way it progressed was unfortunate. They made an original call and changed a call after conversing together.
"We lose our best player. I totally disagree with it. I haven't seen that, I haven't seen them make the call, get together as a group. I would just want to know who changed the call. Nobody would tell me that."
— Bradley Gelber (@BradleyGelber) January 5, 2018
Ristolainen was suspended three games in March for an interference penalty and high hit on Pittsburgh's Jake Guentzel. That won't help his case here. For his part, Housley had an animated discussion with referees Frederick L'Ecuyer and Chris Lee prior to the start of the second period after watching replays during the first intermission.
"It's a shoulder hit. Let's face it, Rasmus is a physical player," Housley said. "Somebody coming through the middle with their head down, he's going to finish the check. I don't think he was out there to hurt anybody. I don't think that's part of his game. He's a physical and tough competitor and it's unfortunate."
"It happened quick. Hockey is a quick game," said Marco Scandella, Ristolainen's defense partner. "He's a horse for us, a big part of our team. Definitely losing him that early in the game wasn't ideal."
Sure wasn't. Ristolainen averages 27 minutes per game and plays in all situations. He was out of this one after just 5:43. With Ristolainen gone, Housley did well to spread the minutes around on defense between Zach Bogosian (25:32), Scandella (24:06), Jake McCabe (20:38), Nathan Beaulieu (20:24) and Justin Falk (19:55). Falk finished minus-3 in the game.
The Wild had it easy in improving to 11-1-1 at home in their last 13 games. They needed just 17 shots to score all six of their goals in the first 40 minutes against Robin Lehner, who was mercifully pulled for the third and replaced by Chad Johnson.
"We just left guys open, they score a few easy ones and we're out of the game quickly," Scandella said.
Nino Niederreiter led the way with his second career hat trick. He scored at 1:09 of the first and Daniel Winnik burst down the slot unchallenged to beat Lehner at 2:15 and it was essentially game over.
"On the second goal, I made a bad read," Beaulieu said. "I thought he was going to kick it out and he walked through. Just situational play, playing outside our structure. It seems like we're always playing from behind. It's difficult to adjust to. We're looking for answers in here but giving up two goals that fast, you can't let that happen."
"It looked like the Red Sea parted and he was able to walk right down the gut," Housley said of Winnik. "That's just not the way we've been playing. It was really nothing what Minnesota did. They capitalized on their opportunities. I'll give them credit. It was what we gave them. We gave them too much."