SAN JOSE, Calif. – Casey Mittelstadt sensed a breakthrough was near. The 20-year-old center and his left winger, Jimmy Vesey, were generating more scoring chances and sustaining pressure in the offensive zone, yet neither had a goal through seven games.
"We were pretty due," Mittelstadt said with a grin late Thursday night inside the Buffalo Sabres' dressing room at Staples Center.
Their confidence never wavered, not even when facing the challenge of limited ice time some nights. Playing with two different linemates this season didn't matter, either. When the Sabres were in need of a fast start on the second night of their first back-to-back games of the season, Mittelstadt, Vesey and their right wing, Conor Sheary, delivered.
Mittelstadt scored a career-high two goals, Vesey recorded his first assist with the Sabres and Sheary added a goal in his return from injury in a 3-0 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. The performance showed that Buffalo (6-1-1) has four lines that are a legitimate threat to score on every shift.
"The last few games, we had quite a few chances, especially the last couple," Mittelstadt, who has two goals among five points, said. "Shears was out, but I’ve played with him enough that it’s pretty easy to pick up where we left off. It felt good. We’ve done a lot of good things and it was good to see a few go in."
The performance was particularly important for Mittelstadt. He seemed to have a slow start to training camp while adjusting to the new defensive-zone structure implemented by coach Ralph Krueger.
However, Mittelstadt and his linemates have provided reliable defense. His plus-5 rating is a remarkable improvement from the minus-19 he recorded in 77 games as a rookie, and his added strength has helped him forecheck effectively.
During the first period Thursday night, Mittelstadt gained leverage on a Kings defender to jar a puck loose. Vesey retrieved it near the opposing blue line, drew a defender to him in the left circle and passed to Mittelstadt, whose one-timer gave the Sabres a 1-0 lead.
Less than three minutes later, Mittelstadt managed to track a pass from Rasmus Dahlin at his skates, entered the offensive zone and his cross-ice pass was one-timed into the net by Sheary, who missed the previous four games with an upper-body injury.
Mittelstadt scored his second goal at 2:32 into the second period, when he gained positioning in front of the net and deflected a pass from Rasmus Ristolainen past Kings goalie Jack Campbell.
"I thought Conor came in with a lot of energy today and added to the punch," Krueger said of Mittelstadt's line. "They could have had more. They were the difference-maker for sure tonight and the offense. That’s the kind of team we need to be. We need to find different ways to win, especially on back-to-backs, on a long trip like this. The mental side of it, you need help and you need everyone to chip in. It was just really a good night for them to step up. These are big two points for us."
The performance was a byproduct of patience and progress in Krueger's system. The line seemed to form instant chemistry in the season-opening win at Pittsburgh, when Sheary scored two goals against his former team.
However, the group's ice time began to dip and Evan Rodrigues drew into the lineup for Sheary. Following the win Thursday, Vesey was averaging a career-low 12:11 of ice time and Mittelstadt was at 11:05 while ranking last in 5-on-5 ice time among Sabres to appear in eight games. They haven't been a liability in their own zone. Neither player has been on the ice for a goal against this season, but the line wasn't generating much time in the offensive zone until the Sabres' win over Florida on Oct. 11.
During a 4-0 win over Dallas on Monday, the group had what Krueger called a "Sabre hockey kind of shift," where it controlled the puck in the offensive zone for over one minute and drew a penalty. Mittelstadt and Vesey also have successfully navigated the challenge of limited ice time.
"It is a challenge," Vesey acknowledged prior to the Sabres' loss in Anaheim on Wednesday. "I think just when you sit there for a little bit you should be well-rested. We have to create our own energy and stay in it mentally, which we’ve done better at as of late. … If we can get it going here, we have the skill to really be an X-factor for the team."
Krueger, though, has tried to put Mittelstadt in a position to build confidence. He ranks third among Sabres forwards with 22 offensive-zone starts and he has taken the fewest faceoffs in the defensive zone. Though his 5-on-5 ice time has been limited, Mittelstadt remains on the Sabres' second power-play unit, and his faceoff percentage is up almost 11% from last season.
Vesey, meanwhile, has contributed on the penalty kill and has consistently provided pressure in the defensive zone. Now, both are proving to be a threat on offense.
"It can be frustrating at times," Sheary said of his linemates' bad luck during his absence. "I know they thought they were playing pretty good and I did, too, from watching. It’s just a matter of a bounce here or there that’s going to go in for you. I was happy Mittsy was able to get a couple tonight and hopefully it’s Jimmy’s turn next game."
Lazar joins Amerks
Forward Curtis Lazar, who was recalled from Rochester on Sunday, was assigned to the Amerks on Friday morning. Lazar no longer was needed on the Sabres' roster since Sheary returned and Rodrigues served as the extra forward.
Additionally, Rochester assigned goalie Michael Houser to Cincinnati.
Preparing for Sharks
The Sabres are expected to hold a morning skate Saturday in San Jose to prepare for their game against the Sharks in SAP Center at 10:30 p.m. EST. The team is expected to be off Sunday and will host San Jose in KeyBank Center on Tuesday.