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Ristolainen's assists adding spice to Sabres' offense

VANCOUVER -- Now that he's signed his new contract, Rasmus Ristolainen is all set in Buffalo for the next six years. He's playing big minutes and even entered Thursday's game tied for the NHL lead in assists with five, along with names like Patrick Kane, Joe Thornton and Erik Karlsson.

One thing Ristolainen has to wrestle with going forward is improving his play against the NHL's top stars, a task that was to fall heavily on his shoulders Thursday night when he met Henrik and Daniel Sedin during the Sabres' game against the Vancouver Canucks.

But there's another thing the 21-year-old is still adjusting to: the Buffalo-style chicken wing.

In an article published by the Hockey News earlier this week, Ristolainen said he loves his adopted hometown but admitted he's partial to the wings back home in Turku, Finland.

"It's pretty much the same as here but they're smaller, a little better sauce to me," Ristolainen said in Rogers Arena. "I don't know. It's hard to say. It's like a Buffalo sauce but they make their own. Similar but still a little better."

Ristolainen struggled to come up with the best description of the sauce, but a quick Google search shows Finland's wings come spicy, with lots of honey added as well, rather than the BBQ version folks in Western New York are accustomed to.

One thing Ristolainen is not struggling with anymore is his English, which has improved dramatically since he made his debut as a first-round pick with Buffalo in 2013. Also improving has been his play this season. The big contract hasn't caused any undue pressure on him.

Ristolainen played 23 minutes, 17 seconds in the season opener against Montreal, 26:43 in Sunday's win in Edmonton and 26:04 in Tuesday's overtime loss in Calgary. Coach Dan Bylsma said over the summer he was hoping to cut back on some of Ristolainen's minutes this season. Bylsma laughed when reminded about that Wednesday and admitted it's been no dice in that area so far.

"I played a lot last year and I certainly don't want to play less," Ristolainen said. "I want to be better. I'm in better shape and I think I can handle as many minutes as I earn."

Ristolainen had three assists in the game in Edmonton and has been a key part of the Buffalo power play, which entered Thursday's game 4 for 16 and seventh in the NHL at 25 percent even with the loss of Jack Eichel and Evander Kane to longterm injuries.

"Our PP has been OK so far," he said. "We've had some goals and we've got a great unit going. We're not going to be satisfied. We have to work on it every day and we can get better."

Ristolainen signed a six-year, $32.4 million contract with the Sabres last week, joining the club on the eve of the season opener. His play is quite controversial in the analytics community, with many saying his possessions numbers don't warrant a big-money deal.

And through three games this year, there's more ammunition available as Ristolainen is around a 34 percent Corsi on even strength, certainly much lower than the Sabres would want. Playing against everyone's top forwards can tend to do that to your numbers. But those numbers soar to 89 percent on the power play, where he's proving to be a key cog.

Ristolainen had career highs in every offensive category last year with nine goals, 32 assists and 41 points. But he had just two goals the rest of the way after posting a third-period hat trick during a December loss in Calgary. The Sabres certainly feel he can produce more numbers.

"He's certainly made improvement to his game, has some growth to his offensive game, how he's handling the puck, how he's managing our power play," said Bylsma. "I also think some of those assists have been the result of good solid puck movement, not dramatic plays he's made. It's solid movement. We've looked his games and he's shown a lot more poise with the puck and a lot more heads-up in the back end with it."

Ristolainen has also flourished on the penalty kill, as the Sabres entered Thursday one of three NHL teams perfect in that area at 9 for 9.

"The special teams are so important if you want to win and our PK has been really good," he said. "Robin Lehner has made some saves there and our guys have done a good job getting in the way of passes, shot blocks. It's simple stuff that's important."


Lehner made his third straight start in goal for the Sabres, facing Vancouver's Jacob Markstrom. Former Sabre Ryan Miller, who has been battling abdominal tightness, served as the backup for the Canucks and could get a start this weekend.

Bylsma said it's been difficult to get Sabres backup Anders Nilsson a game in net to make his regular season debut with Buffalo. That's because the Sabres have had a day off before each of their four games thus far.

That changes starting next week, as the Sabres close October with four games in six days and then play seven games in the first 12 days in November.

"He's done everything we've asked of him in training camp," Bylsma said of Nilsson. "You look at the schedule and see the games evenly spaced out for a period of time, and it's tough to not get him a game in there. At the same time, as I look forward, you see a ton of games coming and back-to-backs too. He'll get his opportunity in net for us."


In 18 career games against the Sabres entering Thursday, Daniel Sedin has four goals and 12 assists while Henrik Sedin has four goals and 10 assists. For their careers, Daniel has 356-588-944 while Henrik is at 223-749-972 and just 28 points shy of becoming the 44th player in NHL history with 1,000 career points.

"It's nice being away from them a little bit and not seeing them so much," joked Sabres center Ryan O'Reilly, who met the 36-year-old twins often while with Colorado. "Once they get going, it's really dangerous. Just the elite level they think at is like nothing else. When they get going, their patience, the way they can suck you in and open up the ice. You can't have a casual shift against them or they will make you pay."


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