PITTSBURGH — The matchup didn't intimidate Casey Mittelstadt. He didn't care that he was lined up against Sidney Crosby, a three-time Stanley Cup champion and future Hall of Famer, in the faceoff circle Thursday night in PPG Paints Arena.
All Mittelstadt cared about was winning the draw and gaining possession for the Buffalo Sabres in the offensive zone. When the 20-year-old center was bested by his opponent, he retreated defensively and waited for the opportunity to try to keep the puck in the Pittsburgh Penguins' end.
Moments later, Mittelstadt emerged from a group of defenders with the puck, skated towards the Penguins' goal and passed to Conor Sheary, who scored his first of two goals in the Sabres' 3-1 win to open the franchise's 50th season. Mittelstadt also assisted on Sheary's second goal — his second multi-point night since Nov. 3, 2018 — and finished with two shots on net.
The Penguins' five power plays, as well as a difficult matchup defensively, caused Mittelstadt to play only 9:25 in his second season opener with the Sabres. However, he showed tangible signs of progress under new coach Ralph Krueger, and his ability to help generate offense in the bottom-six was an important development on a night when neither Jack Eichel nor Jeff Skinner recorded a point.
"Definitely last year was a learning process for him, and I think he took a lot from that," Sheary said of Mittelstadt. "Tonight what that turnover and that nice play to me, [that shows] he’s learned a lot about the game. He’s getting better defensively as well. It’s exciting to see."
Mittelstadt, who was drafted eighth overall in 2017, had a slow start to training camp, which should be expected from a young center learning another new system. Additionally, more is asked of centers defensively, and young players at the position can take longer to reach their potential offensively.
Mittelstadt delivered an encouraging performance in the preseason finale in Pittsburgh on Sept. 28. He recorded a plus-1 rating and four shots on goal in 18:39. Following the morning skate Thursday, Mittelstadt appeared relaxed and excited. Confidence has never been an issue for him, even last season, when he experienced growing pains as a rookie in the National Hockey League.
Mittelstadt had 12 goals among 25 points in 77 games and struggled at times with the physical demands of a chaotic, 82-game schedule. He added weight and muscle mass this past summer to better prepare himself to forecheck against the league's top players.
Following the faceoff loss to Crosby, Mittelstadt watched the puck carom around the right-wing boards, prevented two Penguins from exiting the zone by poking it back toward the circle and skated forward to corral the puck on the blade of his stick. Upon gaining possession, Mittelstadt drew a defenseman towards him and dished a pass over to Sheary, whose shot from below the faceoff dot went over goalie Matt Murray's blocker for a 1-0 lead at 5:23 into the first period.
"Whenever he’s out there against us, [I have to] make the plays," Mittelstadt said of Crosby. "Do what you do. That was a good bang-bang play and Shears had a nice finish. That’s a good way to start."
Mittelstadt, Sheary and Jimmy Vesey didn't see much of Crosby, though. Instead, Mittelstadt faced the Penguins' third forward group — Jared McCann, Nick Bjugstad and Dominik Kahun — the most at 5 on 5 and posted a remarkable 72.7 percent shot differential. However, Mittelstadt also showed he's still learning on the job.
Moments after Mittelstadt turned the puck over in the defensive zone, he was called for a holding penalty in the second period. Penguins center Evgeni Malkin scored a power-play goal to tie the score, 1-1, only 26 seconds later. Mittelstadt also lost seven of 11 faceoffs and was credited with one turnover.
Mittelstadt showed last season he has the skill to excel in the NHL. He possesses elite speed and his shot is among the best on the Sabres. Yet, he struggled forechecking and making an impact around the net. Mittelstadt showed improvement in the latter Thursday night, when he fought to get his stick on a rebound in front of the net. He successfully knocked the puck over to Sheary, whose wrist shot gave the Sabres a 2-1 lead with 5:57 remaining in the second period.
"Everybody contributed," Krueger said. "When you looked at some of the minutes played, guys understood. They accepted those roles and they jumped in and did the best with the minutes they had. Of course, getting that first goal, the combination of Mittsy and Conor helped us to really get our feet into this game and to feel and believe that we could win it."
The Sabres out-shot the Penguins, 41-29, and pulled away when Rasmus Dahlin pushed the lead to 3-1 with 44 seconds remaining in the second period. Buffalo had to kill three penalties in the third period to hold on for the win. The Sabres effectively pressured the puck the entire game and had one of their better regular-season defensive efforts in some time.
Sidney Crosby was held to one shot on goal in 21:01 and his best linemate, Jake Guentzel, did not have a shot in 20:15. The Sabres, meanwhile, received at least two shots on goal from all but three players in the lineup. The emergence of supplementary scoring options, Mittelstadt included, was notable following a season in which the Sabres relied too much on Eichel and Skinner.
"Especially the first couple of games, you have to get used to the speed," Mittelstadt said of his slow start in camp. "I always notice I have to get my hands back up to speed. I think there were quite a few chances for me around the net. It was nice to see a couple go in, even if they weren’t for me."