In the aftermath of a thrilling overtime win Tuesday night, Casey Mittelstadt received from a friend a text message that included a clip from an NHL Network broadcast.
Kevin Weekes, a former goaltender and current analyst for the network, spent more than two minutes breaking down Mittelstadt's final shift of the Buffalo Sabres' 4-3 win over the San Jose Sharks inside KeyBank Center. Mittelstadt, a 20-year-old center, skated full bore down the ice to break up a centering pass from Erik Karlsson near the Sabres' net, baited the Sharks into a bad line change and assisted on Jack Eichel's game-winning goal.
The vision with which Mittelstadt surveyed the ice following his forced turnover led Weekes to compare him to Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom.
"Uh, no," Mittelstadt said when asked about the Lidstrom comparison. "I think that’s my roommate’s job. One of my buddies sent me that clip last night. They were just making fun of me the whole time. It’s pretty good. It’s pretty funny."
Mittelstadt's shift also was a prominent talking point during the Sabres' team film session prior to practice Wednesday. The sequence illustrated the defensive work coach Ralph Krueger wants to see from his players every game and continued an upward trend in Mittelstadt's play. However, he downplayed his part in the victory.
"I saw Karlsson get the puck and they had a two-on-one," Mittelstadt recalled. "I pretty much had no choice but to go, I guess. I don’t know, I don’t think it’s that big a deal. I think anyone on our team would’ve done it. I guess it’s just something you've got to do."
— NHL Network (@NHLNetwork) October 23, 2019
The game-winning shift began when the Sabres (8-1-1) turned the puck over behind the Sharks' net, leading to a odd-man rush in the other direction. Mittelstadt put his head down and skated up the ice to intercept Karlsson's pass. Upon gaining possession, Mittelstadt bought time for Buffalo to make a line change.
In the meantime, San Jose chose to make a change. It proved to be the difference in the game. Mittelstadt sent a breakout pass up the ice, and Eichel scored his second goal of the game on a scramble in front of the net. Mittelstadt, who was drafted eighth overall in 2017, has continued to show refined play without the puck.
"It definitely didn’t get lost, because pretty much everything that’s happening here on the positive offensively – five-on-five, four-on-four or three-on-three – is coming out of excellent defensive work and decisions that guys are making," Krueger said of Mittelstadt's final shift. "That gets lost in the general analysis of a game – what happens, the tracking, the way the D are gapping up, and all of that is causing the opposition stress in that we’re attacking them when they’re quite weak, and that’s what happened there. ... That was just a microscopic example of what’s going on in this team in general and the character we’ve shown and the commitment we’ve shown without the puck is what’s making even these victories possible."
Mittelstadt has three goals among seven points with a plus-6 rating in 10 games this season. Five of those points have come in the past three games. His line – which also includes Jimmy Vesey and Conor Sheary – has helped rejuvenate the Sabres' play at 5 on 5 since they were reunited last Thursday in Los Angeles.
Mittelstadt's improvement is perhaps the most significant development surrounding this team. Last season, he struggled to adjust to the defensive responsibilities of playing center in the NHL. An offseason of training helped him gain strength to better prepare him to withstand the grind of an 82-game season and to outmuscle an opponent for a loose puck along the boards.
Though Mittelstadt downplayed his role in baiting San Jose into what Sharks captain Logan Couture called an "inexcusable change," the reaction from the bench was particularly gratifying for Krueger.
"I’m watching the entire bench cheering Casey’s drive back to our net," Krueger said. "I’ve spoken to you a little bit about the life on our bench right now, and when you hear the players talk and use the word tracking in front of you in a three-on-three overtime situation and everybody’s so excited and then it turns into a goal, it’s that lead up to the goal that really makes you proud of what the group is doing as a coach."
With two goals and two assists Tuesday night against San Jose, Eichel became the sixth player in Sabres history to post multiple four-point outings through his first 10 games of a season. Pat LaFontaine (1992-93) and Gilbert Perreault (1972-73) each accomplished the feat three times.
Rasmus Dahlin, meanwhile, became the fifth teenage defenseman in NHL history to record at least 10 points in his first 10 games of a season, joining Phil Housley (13 points, 1984 and 10 in 1983), Zach Werenski (10, 2017) and Hannu Virta (10, 1983).
The Sabres' game Thursday night against the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden marks Vesey's return to his former home. Vesey, a 26-year-old winger, scored 50 goals among 90 points in 240 regular-season games during his three years with the Rangers. He also played 12 playoff games with the team in 2016-17.
The Sabres acquired Vesey in July for a third-round draft pick in the 2021 NHL draft. The Rangers (2-4-1) have a negative-6 goal differential despite adding Artemi Panarin, Kaapo Kakko and Jacob Trouba, among others, this past offseason.