For Casey Mittelstadt, the season has to be looked at in baby steps. He spent his bye week and All-Star break feeling better about how things are going. Two goals in six games will do that.
Mittelstadt has been up and down in the Buffalo Sabres' lineup. Being a No. 2 center in the NHL has proved daunting at times, too daunting to the point he's spent some games down in the pecking order. But Mittelstadt has been back on the second line the last couple days and should be there Tuesday night between Conor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues when the Sabres take the ice for the first time in 11 days with a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Nationwide Arena.
Mittelstadt scored one of the Sabres' five second-period goals in their Jan. 8 win over New Jersey and scored the game's opening goal one minute into the 7-2 loss Jan. 14 in Edmonton.
"It was good for sure, made my break a little less stressful," Mittelstadt said Monday after the team practiced in HarborCenter. "I got a couple good bounces and it gives you a better feeling that you want to keep going."
Mittelstadt has three points in the last six games. By comparison, he had only one goal and three points in the previous 19 games. He piled up points in high school, the United States Hockey League and had 30 points in 34 games last year at the University of Minnesota. But this is a different world.
"I try not to put too much on myself but that's not the easiest thing for me," he said. "You have to balance it out. There are some nights you're just chasing the puck around and that's how it goes. And that can happen even in high school, too. You just stay with it, believe in what you're doing, that it will pay off and that you'll get chances. Just be ready for them when they come."
Of course, one reason Mittelstadt's offense isn't where he'd like it to be is because a center in the NHL has be stellar defensively. There's been nightly lessons in that area. He has a minus-6 rating for the season and has a 47 percent Corsi rating at even strength, ahead of only Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson among the team's 12 regular forwards.
"It's tough. You have to play a 200-foot game in this league," said Sabres coach Phil Housley. "A lot of times when you're the low forward, you've got to be very well aware defensively to help out the defense. You have to get up on the attack. When you're first in on the forecheck, then you have to come back all the way."
"You have to keep body position," Mittelstadt said. "There's so many little things that older guys in the NHL know how to do that I've never had to worry about. Giving a guy a step in this league is a lot different than giving a guy a step in college. That's been the main thing I've learned for sure."
Mittelstadt's assignment is a tough one. He's a 20-year-old rookie in his first full NHL season while Sabres fans are watching the departed Ryan O'Reilly put up a big year in St. Louis and be named one of four finalists for the MVP award at Saturday night's All-Star Game in San Jose. Sending O'Reilly off and giving Mittelstadt a big role is a long-term play.
O'Reilly, of course, is a polished product. Mittelstadt is not.
"I've gone everywhere and put up points and been able to make plays every night pretty much," Mittelstadt said. "It's been new and I've had to learn things. I'm getting much more comfortable so I'm ready to really get going here now this second half. I'm always hard on myself so at times it gets tough. This is good for me to learn a lot about being patient."
"I think he's been adjusting well and I really like the play of our young guys going into the break," Housley said. "I think Rasmus Dahlin has played his best hockey right before the break. Hopefully they can build off that going forward but it's a difficult task, especially on the road when you're not going to get the matchups you want."
The Sabres have a tough matchup against a Columbus team that's four points behind the New York Islanders for the Metropolitan Division lead. The Blue Jackets posted a 5-4 overtime decision over Buffalo on Oct. 27 in the Ohio capital, a wildly entertaining game that was won on a goal by Artemi Panarin. Mittelstadt had forged a tie at 4:30 of the third period, helping the Sabres wipe out a two-goal deficit with his first goal of the season.
"It was a back and forth, back and forth game," he recalled. "We scored right away (on a Kyle Okposo goal at 1:38), they came back, we came back. They're fast, physical and aggressive. We're going to have to be ready to go coming out of the break."