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Rasmus Ristolainen's struggles push Housley's breaking point

It was a game that started bad and kept getting worse and worse for Rasmus Ristolainen.

The absent-minded play of the Buffalo Sabres' No. 1 defenseman left coach Phil Housley no choice but to yank Ristolainen from the ice during 5-on-5 situations for virtually the entire second period of Sunday's 5-4 loss to Colorado.

Housley gave Ristolainen his spot back for the third period, with mixed results. And the coach minced no words when asked about the situation afterwards.

"I think you saw the game. I think there's some passengers tonight that weren't prepared to play the game," Housley said, without mentioning Ristolainen by name. "I don't think the game was going his way so I just decided to mix up the pairs."

Ristolainen was burned by a long stretch pass from former teammate Nikita Zadorov on the game's opening shift, allowing the Avalanche to score on a 2-on-0 break just 43 seconds into the game. His giveaway near the blue line allowed Matt Nieto to speed in for a short-handed goal later in the period and he was outmuscled along the wall for the Avs' third goal on the first shift of the second period.

That was it for the middle frame for Ristolainen at even strength, as he played just 19 seconds while Housley used him only on special teams. In the end, it was one of the worst games of Ristolainen's career as he was on the ice for all five Colorado goals, finishing the game with a minus-3 rating.

Lack of awareness, fumbling with the puck, spotty passes. Ristolainen had all of those issues working against him. He played 23 minutes, 48 seconds overall, his lowest total since Dec. 14 (not counting the Jan. 4 game at Minnesota where he was ejected in the first period). He remains third in the NHL in time on ice, averaging 26:26 per game.

"I don't know. It's just a bad game," Ristolainen said. "Should not happen."

The issue: It's been happening a lot lately.

Ristolainen has been on the team's top defense pair with Marco Scandella much of the season but got dropped to the second tandem with Nathan Beaulieu after butchering a pass in overtime to Jack Eichel that allowed the Anaheim Ducks to gain possession and score the game-winning goal here last Tuesday.

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In the seven games since the All-Star break, Ristolainen has an empty-net goal Saturday in Boston and two assists while compiling a minus-4 rating. But in his previous 12 games, the 23-year-old was playing some of the best hockey of his career, with 13 points (3-10-13) and a plus-3 rating. He was third among NHL defensemen in that stretch, behind only Dallas' John Klingberg (17) and San Jose's Brent Burns (16).

So what's happened?

"I think it could be preparation, maybe confidence," Housley said. "I just don't see him sharp in his game right now. I think that's going back to the All-Star break. He's got to refocus and get his game back."

"You've got to always keep your confidence," Ristolainen said. "I know what I can do. It's not about that. Right now, obviously I've got to play better. You play good, you play bad. I've got to learn."

The Sabres were off Monday and need Ristolainen to find his game quickly because they're facing a huge challenge Tuesday night with a visit from the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning to KeyBank Center.

For much of the season, Housley has seemed loathe to offer much in the way of public critiques of his players. But the Hall of Fame defenseman's gloves are off with Ristolainen, who is clearly frustrating his first-year coach with his lax play.

Housley may be seeing what hockey's analytics community has argued long and hard about the last couple of years.

The prevailing debate has insisted Ristolainen is not a true No. 1 defenseman. Ristolainen's Corsi rating this season is hovering around 46 percent – and that's ranked just 188th in the NHL among blueliners who have played at least 20 games.

His detractors say many of his points and most of his good moments come on the power play. That's happening again this year, as Ristolainen's eight power-play points since Jan. 7 are tied with Washington's John Carlson and San Jose's Brent Burns for most among NHL blueliners.

His supporters say his numbers are surpressed because he's always playing against top competition, on a weak team and very often starting play in his defensive zone. And he's still only 23 even though he's already played 320 career games.

The Sabres continue to hope the numbers geeks are wrong, because he's in just the second season of a six-year, $32.4 million contract.

"He'll be fine. He'll just wipe this one out," said Scandella. "Clean slate it the next game. He'll come out and be a great player for us. Everyone can have a bad game. Sometimes you just find the puck a little bit."

Ristolainen has four goals and 21 assists this season with a minus-13 rating. He's on pace for 39 points, just up from his average of 35 over his first three full NHL seasons but down from last year's 45-point output. The plus-minus is just one off Beaulieu's minus-14 for the worst among Buffalo's defensemen.

Ristolainen said he never got an explanation from Housley about the move to cut back his ice time – but he understood one wasn't really needed.

"I don't know. I just played bad. That's a coach's decision," he said "I've got to respect that. New game coming Tuesday. I've got to be better."

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