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Sabres’ Mitchell earns his way to center stage

It’s been awhile since Torrey Mitchell felt comfortable somewhere. He was an afterthought in Minnesota last year, and after a trade to Buffalo he got hurt before he could settle in.

The forward didn’t know what to expect this season. He knew the Sabres were taking a look at their young prospects, and the 29-year-old figured he’d be in a fight to avoid the minors.

Instead, he’s fighting to set career highs in goals and ice time.

Mitchell has goals in two of the last four games, giving the longtime grinder three this season. He’s on pace for 12, which would crack the career high of 10 he set as a San Jose rookie in 2007-08.

The center scored the winner against Washington on Saturday, allowing the Sabres to carry a three-game winning streak into Wednesday’s home game against Winnipeg.

“It’s nice to have some success right now and finding my role,” Mitchell said Monday in First Niagara Center. “Confidence is everything in this league. That’s no secret. You get some wins under your belt and you start feeling good about yourself. It makes a big difference just showing up to the rink on a practice day.

“We have that right now. We just need to keep it going.”

Mitchell is the type of player who historically thrives under coach Ted Nolan.

The former fourth-round pick has hung around for seven seasons thanks to speed and tenacity. Mitchell is accustomed to a fourth-line role, but Nolan has been using him on the first or second. Mitchell’s average ice time of 14:29 is the highest of his career.

“Everything comes from how he works,” said captain Brian Gionta, who plays on Mitchell’s right side while Brian Flynn skates on the left. “He’s good all over the ice, whether it’s D-zone or not. The night against San Jose, he’s making good plays in the D-zone and it leads to a two-on-one for a goal.

“Little things that people don’t necessarily see, that’s what he’s all about.”

Nolan saw enough from Mitchell recently to assume a move from winger to center would work. It has, although Mitchell’s 37.9 percent faceoff success rate could use work.

“I enjoy playing center,” Mitchell said. “It’s been good the last three, four games, but I’ve still got to keep working on faceoffs and being sharp in the defensive zone and supporting the puck all over the ice.”

He thinks the line works because he plays a similar style to Gionta and Flynn. All three are undersized – Mitchell is listed at 5-foot-11, 189 pounds while Flynn is 6-1, 180 and Gionta is 5-7, 176 – but they have quick feet and thought processes.

“Three hard-working guys that read and react off each other,” Nolan said. “They study their craft, and their character really steps to the forefront.”

Added Mitchell: “The three of us sort of have the same mentality going into games, just try to outwork whoever we’re lining up against. Obviously, we’re trying to do that in our entire lineup, but at least the three of us, we’re not All-Stars or the most skilled guys, so outworking and having that mentality is a key to our success.”

Mitchell seemed like an unlikely choice to score the winner in Washington. He barely made it to the bench after taking a puck in the foot from teammate Rasmus Ristolainen with 10 minutes left.

Two minutes later, he buried a rebound to put Buffalo up, 2-1.

“A little friendly fire by Risto,” Mitchell said. “We all got a good laugh about it after the game, but it wasn’t very enjoyable when it happened. When it initially happened, it felt really bad. I walked it off and it calmed down, so I was fine.

“Obviously, getting the two points is the most important thing, and it’s nice to do that. Hopefully, we can keep doing that.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com

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