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Skills challenge in front of family, fans a 'one-day holiday' for Sabres

Casey Mittelstadt was almost sabotaged by his Buffalo Sabres teammates. As the 20-year-old rookie center participated in the shootout portion of the Sabres Skills Challenge on Sunday, players from the opposing team shot 10 pucks down the ice to try to prevent him from scoring.

Mittelstadt still managed to stick handle the puck between his legs and beat Carter Hutton to help the Team White beat the Team Blue, 12-10, in front of 9,240 fans at KeyBank Center.

"I guess I got lucky one didn't hit me," Mittelstadt said with a laugh.

The event – which benefited the Buffalo Sabres Foundation – was reminiscent of open practices held at Memorial Auditorium in past decades. Both teams even wore retro-looking jerseys.

Almost 30 alumni attended – including Dominik Hasek, Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert – to sign autographs. Players' families were able to watch the competition from up close. In addition to a remarkable display of skill, fans were given a look behind the curtain to see a lighter side of Sabres players.

"It’s something you don’t do too often," defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, who was on the White team with Mittelstadt, said. "It’s fun. You still come to the rink, but you get your mind off hockey and the game stuff. It’s like a one-day holiday."

Neither Jack Eichel nor Sam Reinhart participated, but their absences did not spoil the five events. Rasmus Dahlin, selected first overall by the Blue team, began the afternoon by narrowly beating Mittelstadt, his roommate, in the puck control relay.

Each player had to skate from one red line to the other, collect a puck and stick handle back by going around a series of cones.

"Obviously, living together and stuff we get competitive enough, so it added something to it," Mittelstadt said. "It was pretty funny. I thought I had him, but I think he decided he was going to turn it on and when he does that it’s kind of unfair."

White took a two-point lead during the hardest shot competition thanks to Ristolainen, whose second attempt was clocked at 107.5 mph. Winger Remi Elie had the second-hardest shot for White at 105.9 mph, while Tage Thompson had a 104 mph shot for Blue.

Ristolainen's feat of strength was overshadowed by the antics of Zach Bogosian, who went third for Blue. Bogosian, a right-handed defenseman, chose to shoot left-handed for the drill. Each of his two attempts were clocked at 0 mph because both shots went off the crossbar and in.

Bogosian didn't have much luck right-handed, either. His second attempt registered at 17 mph, though he hoisted his stick in the air afterward as if it were the Stanley Cup.

"The guys think it’s funny because I do it after practice every once in a while, shoot left-handed," Bogosian said. "I’ve always been able to do it, so I figured let’s see how hard it is. Both of them came up zero, so I guess we’ll never know."

Jason Pominville, Evan Rodrigues and Mittelstadt each hit all four targets for White in the shooting accuracy challenge, though Blue's Kyle Okposo won the event by hitting four targets on only five shots.

The next event was the 3-on-1 power-play challenge, where three players from each team had 30 seconds to score as many goals as possible on the opposing goalie. White's second group – Scandella, Elie and Ristolainen – scored three times on Hutton.

Following the drill, Hutton skated over to Blue's bench to hold his infant son, Palmer. Hasek was chatting with both goalies and Rob Ray. Eichel, Casey Nelson and Zemgus Girgensons, all of whom are out because of injury, watched from the benches.

"I think the whole day was great," Hutton said. "It was a fun atmosphere, especially getting our families involved. Getting the fans to see that other side of us, the softer side. Obviously when we’re playing it’s so serious. To have that was a great experience for sure."

White captured the win with five goals during the shootout, but the most memorable attempt was by Jeff Skinner, who showed off his figure-skating prowess by doing four spins toward the goal while carrying the puck in the air on the blade of his stick. His backhanded shot was stopped by Linus Ullmark.

Mittelstadt scored a highlight-reel shootout goal by tucking the puck between his legs and Matt Hunwick added two more goals for White. Thompson scored twice for Blue, the second of which when he skated toward the goal, flopped down on his stomach to distract Ullmark and poked the puck in while holding his stick in his left hand.

Fittingly, the final goal of the event was scored by Hutton, when he skated down and used a wrist shot to beat Ullmark. Afterward, the team photo included players' children and Sabretooth. It was a welcome reprieve for the Sabres after they lost in Boston, 2-1, one night earlier.

They had a short practice Sunday morning in KeyBank Center and will get back to work Monday in preparation for a Tuesday night game against New Jersey.

"I was pretty surprised," Skinner said of the crowd size. "It’s cool. It’s cool to have that many people here. It’s a fun event."

•••

Coach Phil Housley did not speak to reporters, so there was no update provided on why Reinhart did not practice or participate in the skills competition. Reinhart played 19:14 over 22 shifts against the Bruins on Saturday night in TD Garden.

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