Rasmus Dahlin was overcome with excitement when he awoke at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday. The 19-year-old defenseman knew a concussion suffered Nov. 25 against the Tampa Bay Lightning would force him to miss his eighth consecutive game, yet he was preparing for his latest milestone in an agonizing road to recovery.
"I was nervous," Dahlin said with a smile following the morning skate in KeyBank Center. "It felt like Christmas. Good to be back."
Dahlin isn't all the way back. Doctors have yet to clear him for contact, preventing him from facing the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in KeyBank Center. However, Tuesday was Dahlin's first skate with teammates since he took an illegal high hit from Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak, who was suspended two games for the incident.
Dahlin told the media he "feels good" and wouldn't say much about the hit that ended his run of playing 106 consecutive regular-season games since being drafted first overall in June 2018. He also deferred to his coaches and team medical personnel when asked about a potential timeline to return to the lineup.
“I feel a lot better," Dahlin said. "It’s good to be back with the boys. They were on a road trip so I was home alone and it was boring. It’s good to have them back.”
Dahlin began skating recently and was wearing a red non-contact jersey on the KeyBank Center ice before the morning skate began. He had not been part of structured practice since playing 11:23 in the 5-2 loss to Tampa Bay at Amalie Arena. Cernak, who was fined for the hit, texted Dahlin afterward to explain his intentions.
Dahlin responded and described the hit to the media as incidental, though he acknowledged he was elbowed after he passed the puck to Jack Eichel. The timing wasn't ideal for the Sabres, either. Dahlin's play had improved in his handful of games prior to the concussion, including three points against Boston and Florida.
Entering Tuesday, Dahlin's 15 assists still ranked second behind Jack Eichel, and his 18:58 average ice time was third among Sabres defensemen, trailing only Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe. Dahlin has been missed on the Sabres' power play, which was 3-for-23 during his first seven games out of the lineup.
"I felt confident out there and I don’t really remember the whole game [against Tampa Bay]," Dahlin said. "Something good was going on there. I can’t say anything else. (Stuff) happens out there. It’s part of the game. Now that I’m getting back I’ll probably get better."
Dallas Stars coach Jim Montgomery was abruptly fired Tuesday for what the team’s general manager, Jim Nill, called in a statement, “unprofessional conduct inconsistent with the core values and beliefs of the Dallas Stars and the National Hockey League.”
Nill later declined to reveal any details about the reason behind Montgomery’s firing and neither Krueger nor St. Louis Blues coach Craig Berube would comment on the situation before the two teams played Tuesday in KeyBank Center. Krueger simply reflected on the culture he’s tried to create with the Sabres.
“I don’t have enough information really to know why that decision was made in Dallas," Krueger said. "What I do know is how we are interacting with our players here. I don’t think it’s a soft touch at all. I think we’re pretty hard on them, but we’re hard in a very direct and open and honest way. I think that’s what leadership is all about, establishing a foundation where the players know what’s expected quite clearly."
Sabres prospects Mattias Samuelsson and Ryan Johnson were among 28 players selected to USA Hockey’s preliminary roster for the IIHF World Junior Championship, which will be held in the Czech Republic from Dec. 26 through Jan. 5.
The two defensemen will attend a pre-tournament camp, where five players will be cut by Dec. 24. Samuelsson, a second-round draft pick in 2018, has four points in 12 games for Western Michigan this season and is one of four returners from the USA team that won the silver medal last January.
Johnson, meanwhile, was a first-round draft pick, 31st overall, by the Sabres in June. The 18-year-old is a freshman at the University of Minnesota, where he has five assists in 18 games. He had an outstanding performance for the USA at the World Junior Summer Showcase in July and August.