When the Sabres started practice drills that included line combinations and defense pairs, an odd thing happened.
Rasmus Ristolainen sat on the bench and watched.
Buffalo’s first blue-line unit Thursday was Josh Gorges and Cody Franson. Then came Jake McCabe and Zach Bogosian. Finally, Carlo Colaiacovo and Mike Weber came on the ice.
Eventually, Ristolainen subbed in and skated with a few different defensemen. Was coach Dan Bylsma sending a message to Ristolainen, who has a minus-6 rating during Buffalo’s five-game losing streak?
“Not at all,” said Bylsma, who added he wanted to get the right-handed Bogosian some extra work on the left side.
The coach, though, acknowledged he’s seen struggles with the top pair of Ristolainen and Gorges. Ristolainen has no goals in the last 11 games and was minus-2 during Tuesday’s 5-1 loss to Florida.
“It wasn’t his strongest game last game, his play with the puck, but we’re talking about a guy who’s been a big part of our team and how we have played and gets big minutes and big assignments,” Bylsma said. “He’s been really good at that for us.”
Still, Ristolainen and Gorges know they need to be better heading into Friday’s game in Chicago.
“The last couple games, they haven’t been our best ones,” Ristolainen said in First Niagara Center. “We’ve been struggling as a team, and I had a lot of ice time, so I’ve got to play better if I want to earn that ice time and try to help the team more.”
Said Gorges: “We’ve been OK, but too many times I think we’ve been on the ice for goals against. A lot of different reasons for that, but at this level, this time of year, you need to play great. That’s the bottom line. Playing good is just not good enough.
“We all know as a group collectively, start to finish, top to bottom, we all have to be better, and that’s no different for me and Risto.”