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Sabres rookie Casey Mittelstadt frustrating opponents with defense

Casey Mittelstadt doesn't have to go far for advice. The man who sits to his right in the Buffalo Sabres' locker room can relate to what Mittelstadt is experiencing during his first full season in the NHL.

Like Mittelstadt, Sabres winger Kyle Okposo was 19 years old when he broke into the league with the New York Islanders. He struggled to adapt to the nuances of playing at the highest level and spent much of his first season in Brockport of the AHL.

They're two of the best high school hockey players in Minnesota history and both played for the University of Minnesota, albeit a decade apart. They now skate alongside each other with the Sabres, joining Conor Sheary to form a line that frustrates opponents all over the ice. The transition wasn't always easy for the youngest of the three linemates, though. Mittelstadt, who turned 20 last week, struggled in the defensive zone at the season's onset.

Like Okposo, the former top draft pick was quick to adapt and became a catalyst in the Sabres' resurgence.

"It’s been good for me," Mittelstadt told The Buffalo News on Tuesday morning. "I never had too much trouble offensively. I think just focusing on the D zone and obviously if you play well in the D zone you have the puck more and you get to make more plays. That’s what I like to do. It’s been a bit of an adjustment, but it’s gone pretty smooth."

Mittelstadt admitted he didn't start the season how he wanted. He had one point through nine games and had back-to-back minus-2 ratings against the Anaheim Ducks and Montreal Canadiens last month. His ice time dipped to 9:44 when Buffalo lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets in overtime, 5-4.

Unlike Okposo, Mittelstadt's a centerman. He doesn't have the advantage of remaining down low in the defensive zone. Mittelstadt must know where his fellow forwards are at all times and adjusting his position accordingly. Phil Housley wants his players to be aggressive on the forecheck, but that requires awareness and patience from the center.

Roommates Dahlin, Mittelstadt helping each other adjust to life with Sabres

Mittelstadt struggled with the latter early. He's always been gifted with the puck, earning the title of Minnesota Mr. Hockey as a senior at Eden Prairie High School 40 minutes southwest of Minneapolis. The Sabres chose Mittelstadt with the eighth overall pick in the 2017 draft, and Mittelstadt had 30 points in 34 games for the University of Minnesota before beginning his professional career.

He's always looking for an opportunity to create offense. Focusing too much on that in the defensive zone can be compromising, though. During those October struggles, Mittelstadt watched video following games to evaluate his own play, particularly on defense. That's when he noticed that impatience creeping in.

"I didn’t think it was bad," Mittelstadt said. "For me at least, once I kind of see it and know where I’ve got to be and know what I’ve got to do it’s usually a pretty quick adjustment. Probably took a few games, but I feel like I’ve been pretty comfortable in the D zone for a while and getting to make plays. Getting to play against better players has made it more comfortable for me."

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Entering Tuesday's game, Mittelstadt had four goals and four assists in 24 games. There were many heroes during the Sabres' ascent in the Atlantic Division this month – Mittelstadt included. Among those who played in each win prior to Tuesday, Mittelstadt was on the ice for the fewest scoring chances against.

He's also had four takeaways in those nine games, only two fewer than Jack Eichel for the team lead. Mittelstadt's been a force without the puck. Opponents aren't catching him out of position. He, Okposo and Sheary have closed down passing lanes and are thriving in transition.

The goals aren't coming as frequently as they'd like, but Mittelstadt has been dynamic with the puck. Okposo, who scored 18 goals as a rookie amid an Islanders rebuild, expressed admiration for what Mittelstadt's accomplished thus far.

"He's probably handled it a lot better than I did," Okposo said with a chuckle. "With Casey, I think he’s doing a really good job. He’s only going to get better. I really love playing with him. I think we have a lot more to give on the ice, offensively for sure, but I think we’ve done a really good job defensively. That part of his game is really growing. Offensively, the points are going to come. He thinks the game at an elite level."

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