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Rasmus Dahlin learning to absorb big hits, make little plays for Sabres

The preseason game was so long ago that Rasmus Dahlin cannot recall the opponent or the result, but the stern message delivered by teammates in the Buffalo Sabres' dressing room has resonated with him ever since.

"I was upset," the 18-year-old rookie defenseman recalled. "I didn't play well and wanted to make the team. They said, 'Hey, you can't do this after every game.' "

Not a practice or game has passed without a teachable moment for Dahlin, the NHL's top overall draft pick last June. During Thursday's practice in Harborcenter, both Jack Eichel and coach Phil Housley pulled him aside to offer advice.

Dahlin's first season has taught him the value of a short memory, the importance of taking care of his body to withstand the grueling North American game and how to balance his fierce competitiveness with the need to make a simple play.

There is still much for him to learn. That fact is powerfully illustrated even on the nights when his transcendent talent tantalizes and awes. Yet, through all the Sabres' struggles — they could be nine points back of the second wild-card when they host Pittsburgh Friday night — Dahlin's progress has not stalled.

"I’m so happy," he beamed following practice Thursday. "I wouldn’t have expected this kind of season. So far it’s good, but we have to get some wins back and get back on track. There’s something positive in the group right now."

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Dahlin's 37 points (eight goals, 29 assists) rank second among all NHL rookies and first among rookie defensemen. That is on pace for the second-most ever by a defenseman before his 19th birthday, trailing only Housley.

Dahlin's seven multi-point games are more than all but two 18-year-old defensemen in NHL history: Housley and Bobby Orr. And his three game-winning goals are the most ever recorded by a rookie defenseman in franchise history.

That production has not come without angst. Dahlin does not hide his frustration after a mistake but has an uncanny ability to not allow a difficult period or shift to linger. Zach Bogosian, who was 18 when he played his first NHL season with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2008, noted how Dahlin handles such situations unlike most young players.

"If you look at a lot of young defensemen, if they have a tough first period it can be tough for a young defenseman to get over that," said Bogosian. "He kind of just lets it go and goes out there and shows what he can do. Hits that refresh button.

"I don’t think many people can do that at 18. I can speak for myself, I didn’t have it at 18. I’m not sure if Jack [Eichel] can say he had it at 18. Rasmus is a special talent. He’s a special person."

Dahlin did not see Philadelphia Flyers winger Ryan Hartman barreling toward him Tuesday night in Wells Fargo Center. The shoulder-to-shoulder hit dropped Dahlin to the ice, and Bogosian quickly went after Hartman for the hit.

Dahlin used his quick, smooth stride and puck handling to dazzle on the ice in the Swedish Hockey League last year. He rarely had to deal with the thunderous checks or open-ice hits he has endured during his first season with the Sabres.

The NHL's 82-game schedule is also more grueling. Dahlin played 47 total games, including six in the playoffs, with Frolunda last year. He has already played 63 in Buffalo, including 12 sets of back-to-back games with exhausting travel.

Dahlin played 24 minutes in each of the Sabres' past two games, losses in Toronto and Philadelphia, despite the latter being Buffalo's seventh game in 12 days.

"That’s something he has to manage," Housley said of Dahlin. "We’ve tried to put him in places to succeed. I think, for me, he’s trying to make a difference. His intentions are in the right area. He just has to take what the game gives him. He tries to attack and he’s trying to make a difference and you can’t do that every shift."

Housley noted that Dahlin is doing a "pretty good" job striking that balance, but there are times where joining the rush backfires.

Dahlin is scoring at a higher rate than he did last season in Sweden and quarterbacks the Sabres' top power play. His play has not dropped significantly at any point this season. He ranks second among qualifying Sabres with a 51.3 percent Corsi — which measures 5-on-5 shot differential — and posted at least 50 percent in all but one month this season.

Rookies typically hit a wall near the season's midpoint, yet Dahlin had one goal among eight points — including a five-game point streak — with a plus-7 rating in January. That production continued in February with three goals among nine points, though he had a minus-11 in 14 games.

"It’s a grind right now," Bogosian added. "I think he’s handled it really well. It’s tough playing back-to-back games in February. That’s part of a long season. He has an amazing attitude about it. If something bad happens, it’s right out the window for him and he keeps playing his game."

Dahlin, like most of his young teammates, is still learning how to manage his emotions and burning desire to win. He was a catalyst during the 10-game winning streak and has never endured this sort of tailspin.

The Sabres (29-26-8) have little margin for error with their playoff hopes on life support and only 19 regular-season games remaining. But the continued development of Dahlin has them hopeful for the future.

"You can feel it a little bit more now than you did when we were in 40 games," Dahlin said of the grind. "You just have to battle. It’s new for me, but I learn new things every day. It’s all good."

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