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Ristolainen-led defense finally shows its preseason promise

When it comes to trash-talking, Rasmus Ristolainen has had better days. But when it comes to hockey, that's what things were supposed to look like.

Ristolainen and his fellow Buffalo Sabres defensemen were a confident, aggressive group during Monday's victory over Toronto. They pressured the Maple Leafs by being first on the forecheck, pinching from the blue line and skating with the puck.

In other words, the defensemen did what Phil Housley promised they would do before the season.

"That's just our system," the coach said Tuesday. "I've talked about it all along that we want to get the D involved in the offensive zone. They're a big part of our attack."

Alas, things haven't gone as planned. Buffalo was the last team to get a goal from a defenseman, carrying the goose egg until Jake McCabe scored two months into the season. Ristolainen, who finally heated up around New Year's with 24 points in the last 29 games, is the only blue-liner in the top 80 in points (tied for 27th with 33). Marco Scandella, with 18 points, is the only other one in the top 115 in the NHL.

So when the defense corps has a night like Monday, it stands out. The group will go for two in a row Wednesday when Buffalo hosts Calgary.

"We're better when we're more aggressive," Ristolainen said in KeyBank Center. "We forecheck hard. We hit. We're physical, and I think that's the way we've got to play."

Ristolainen was the first player chasing a puck behind the Maple Leafs' net twice Monday. Brendan Guhle also beat everyone below the goal line once. Throw in hard pinches to the low slot by Nathan Beaulieu and Casey Nelson, and Buffalo had the aggressive defense that was advertised during the offseason.

"Absolutely," Sabres goaltender Chad Johnson said. "There was no hesitation with guys jumping up in the play. There's that confidence that guys are going to back you up, that we're going to get through turnovers, that we're going to have guys there to back you up if you make a mistake.

"I think that allows Risto to jump up in the play when we had the puck. Everybody was really getting up when they could."

With the exception of Victor Antipin, every Buffalo defenseman had at least one shot. Ristolainen had two assists.

"I really like the aggressive play from our D, even if it's slamming a wall" at the blue line to keep a puck in, Housley said. "That's where you want to play. You want to play in the offensive zone."

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The Sabres still had to play defense. Toronto is seventh in scoring and set up in Buffalo's zone, especially during a 16-shot third period while pushing to erase two- and three-goal deficits.

But Ristolainen blocked five shots, Scandella got in the way of three and Beaulieu added two blocks and three takeaways. It wasn't a perfect night for Nelson and Guhle, but they showed their speed and puck-moving ability to clear the zone against the Leafs.

"When they dumped it in and changed, we really tried to turn and go, and our D-men really could do that," Johnson said. "When we have that, we have a little more speed, and you see us play a little faster. All the guys were really getting up there, so it was great.

"I don't think you can do that against every team. Toronto, just the way that they were, just the way the energy was, it seemed like we had the opportunity to do that."

Ristolainen was the most visible player, which is how it should be nearly every night. The 23-year-old had two points, a plus-3 rating, four hits, five blocks, one shot and one fight in 25:52.

"I didn't think it was the best one, but it was pretty good," Ristolainen said when asked if it was his best game. "You never play a perfect game. I'm a young player, still got a lot of things to learn. Obviously, you can always be better, and every year I try to take strides."

He could use help in his fighting and chirping. Though he exhorted the crowd to get loud after a fight with Nazem Kadri, he did much more clinging and ducking than punching. Things got more interesting in the penalty box.

The TSN cameras caught a conversation between the players, and a GIF on Twitter by @TheFlintor captioned the chat. It featured Ristolainen saying the feisty players will meet four more times. Kadri countered that Monday didn't count, so it was only three more meetings.

Ristolainen had a stunned look of realization, then turned away. He's seen the clip.

"It was funny," Ristolainen said. "I just exchanged a couple words with him, and that's it. Not going to tell you guys what we said, but obviously you can read a little bit of what we were talking. It's just two guys who play hard and doesn't like each other."

If he and the defense play a similar game against the Flames, there could be more opportunities to frustrate opponents and show their preseason promise.

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