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After eating with Eichel, Sabres' Mittelstadt eager to feast on life in NHL

When Casey Mittelstadt showed up to sign his contract Tuesday, Jack Eichel was also in KeyBank Center. They introduced themselves, chatted and went out for lunch.

It was more than a meal for Mittelstadt. It was food for thought.

"He's pretty much the face of the team," the new Buffalo Sabres player said of Eichel. "It's definitely something pretty cool for a kid like me. Being a hockey player, you obviously know who Jack Eichel is. Getting to know him well and kind of having him welcome you in like that is something really special for me.

"It's good to know that he's excited I'm here and that he's interested in getting to know me."

If the Sabres are ever going to turn this thing around, it will be up to guys such as Eichel and Mittelstadt. Just 21 and 19 years old, respectively, they have the skill and youthful exuberance to one day shake the franchise from the doldrums.

First thing's first, however. Mittelstadt has to actually play a few games. His NHL debut will be Thursday when the Sabres host the Detroit Red Wings in the season's penultimate home game.

"I'm going to try to approach it like any other game I've played," Mittelstadt said. "I like my routines, and I'm going to try to stick to them. They've gotten me to this point, and obviously coming to pro these six games will help me out and maybe give me some new routines, things that I need to do better before games or on off days.

"That's why I'm here. I'm here to learn, and I'm here to get ready for next season."

Other than fiddling with his sticks, Mittelstadt's routines are so ingrained in his preparation that he doesn't really notice them anymore. One superstition that's absent is requiring a certain number.

Mittelstadt feels like he belongs as he prepares for his first game as a Sabre

Mittelstadt will wear No. 37, and it'll be the first time. He was No. 21 at the University of Minnesota, but Kyle Okposo possesses that. He was No. 11 during high school and the World Juniors, but that hangs in the rafters thanks to the greatness of Gilbert Perreault. The No. 20 he wore in the United States Hockey League hangs in the locker of Scott Wilson.

So No. 37 it is, even though it has no special meaning for the Minnesota native. He'll join Matt Ellis, Mike Ryan, Curtis Brown, Barrie Moore, Lou Franceschetti, Bill Houlder and Shawn Anderson in wearing the number.

As a childhood fan of the Minnesota Wild, Mittelstadt doesn't know much (if anything) about his predecessors. He does know times have been tough in Buffalo, a lesson he learned while being named Most Valuable Player of the World Juniors in town this winter.

"I was able to see how nice the fans are and how really dedicated to the team they are," he said. "I think I can feel the struggle a little bit. Obviously, there's a big emphasis being put on the young guys to kind of turn it around here, and I think there's a really good young core."

Mittelstadt joined it by leaving the University of Minnesota after his freshman season. The Golden Gophers failed to make the NCAA Tournament on March 18, and Mittelstadt spent a week getting over the shock and contemplating his future.

He sealed it by signing a three-year, entry-level deal for the rookie maximum of $925,000. With only six games remaining, this season will be prorated.

"I wanted to make sure the decision that I come to that I'm both feet in," he said. "It came up over and over again. Both my feet were in to go pro and play in the NHL.

"I think this was the right decision for me."

Sabres' Botterill: Learning in NHL now will help Mittelstadt, team later

Mittelstadt has been right to follow his instincts so far. While growing up in the State of Hockey, he envisioned a world where he'd excel in high school, move on to the University of Minnesota and reach the NHL.

"I've definitely lived a pretty perfect life to this point," he said. "I'm pretty lucky. My parents were really good growing up. They supported me through everything, gave me all the opportunities I could imagine."

Given how much it means to Minnesotans to play for the Gophers, it was easy to wonder whether he'd stay longer than one season. The decision wasn't all that difficult, and it didn't even factor in the school's tumultuous times. Coach Don Lucia stepped down last week after being behind the bench since 1999, but Mittelstadt said that didn't have much bearing on his choice.

"It was more the pride to wear the M," he said "I don't think that weighed much into it at all. I really enjoyed Coach Lucia, but wearing the M was always my goal."

He achieved it, so it's on to the next step. He got a hint he was ready last summer. He skated in pickup leagues populated by NHLers, including the Sabres' Kyle Okposo.

"It helps me a lot to kind of gauge where I'm at and gauge what I need to do better," Mittelstadt said. "Those skates have definitely prepared me to kind of make this step.

"It's an exciting time for me and my family. We're definitely looking forward to it. Obviously, to get out here and get a few games in will definitely be fun, kind of get up to the speed of the game and get going."

Sabres looking forward to getting Mittelstadt's speed and shiftiness into lineup

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