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Nelson looks good as Sabres' first line of defense

John Tavares is one of the elite offensive players in the NHL, the type of guy who makes defensemen sweat and dig pucks out of their net. Nearly every time the New York Islanders captain jumped over the boards Thursday, the Sabres' Marco Scandella and Casey Nelson hit the ice, too.

For Scandella, it's a regular occurrence to match up against the elite. It's new for Nelson, who was in Rochester a few weeks ago hoping for his big break.

It's arrived, and the rookie is taking advantage.

"He was one of our better defensemen," Buffalo coach Phil Housley said after a 4-3 victory. "He was really good in stick detail defending, and moving the puck well. He kept the game simple. There's nothing really flashy about his game, but he gets the job done."

Nelson's ability to do the job has repeatedly impressed Housley. The defenseman needed only 10 games to go from the bottom pair to a shutdown role. He was pleased with his debut effort on the No. 1 pair after skating a career-high 21:47 against a tough foe like Tavares.

"It went pretty good, actually," Nelson said in KeyBank Center. "He got a couple squeakers in there, but for the most part we limited his time and space. I was just hard on him in the corners, and it paid off in the end."

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Tavares scored once by pushing home a shot that trickled under goaltender Robin Lehner, but he didn't do a lot with Nelson on his case.

"I like the way he's defending," Housley said. "He's trying to keep his inside position, especially against bigger players."

Being a solid defender is relatively new to Nelson. The 25-year-old has offensive skills that come naturally, but he worked hard in Rochester to be better in his own zone. He was minus-10 with the Amerks last season, but he's a team-best plus-11 this year, a 21-point swing.

"You've got to play defense in this league to really play," Nelson said. "We're a pretty good practice group down there – not that we aren't here – but we really focus on our practices and try to apply to our games. It's helped any of us that have came up here."

Nelson earned an assist for the second straight game, hitting Sam Reinhart in stride with a breakout pass that led to the opening goal by Jack Eichel.

"We start doing that, playing fast and putting teams on their heels, that's when we're at our best and hard to play against," Eichel said. "It's good that Nellie has his confidence going. He's playing well, making plays and moving his feet. That's what we need back there."

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The Sabres called up Nelson in mid-January after Zach Bogosian got hurt. Now that Jake McCabe is also sidelined, Nelson's spot on the blue line seems secure for at least the next three weeks.

He got the job on the top pair after Rasmus Ristolainen's struggles continued Tuesday against Anaheim. Ristolainen still played a game-high 27:37 against the Isles, but that includes time on the power play and penalty kill. Ristolainen knows his game has slipped.

"The whole last week it wasn't there where it needs to be, and I've got to get better," Ristolainen said.

All of Ristolainen's head coaches have talked of decreasing his minutes, but injuries usually prevent that. Eventually, Housley wants Ristolainen on the ice less. He thinks it'll help.

"He's going to get above 25 minutes depending on what type of game it is," Housley said, "but I feel if we can keep him around 24, around 25, I think that's where he's at his best.

"Anybody that plays more than that, when you build that through the first period and he's been out there a lot, it just seems like his process is slow, his passes are slow, he's slow to react, so we're going to try to keep him at a good number."

If Nelson can continue to perform against top players in big minutes, it could finally allow the Sabres to even out the ice time. Nelson is doing his part to earn Housley's trust.

"It's a good feeling, but I'm not satisfied," Nelson said. "I've just got to keep going forward. Anytime I can be in the lineup, I'm going to work my butt off and just look forward to the next day."

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