UNIONDALE – Rasmus Dahlin smirked and rolled his eyes clockwise in a playful manner Saturday afternoon when asked about his repeated encounters with New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal.
Dahlin, the Buffalo Sabres' 19-year-old defenseman, exchanged verbal and physical jabs with Barzal during the latter portion of a 3-2 overtime loss to the Islanders inside NYCB Live/Nassau Coliseum. The latter grew so agitated with Dahlin that he took a two-minute roughing penalty that resulted in Jack Eichel scoring the game-tying power-play goal with 1:46 remaining in regulation.
"I kind of like it," Dahlin said. "It gets me going, too. It’s hockey. It's tough out there."
Dahlin frustrated the Islanders with his effortless stickhandling and eagerness to lay a body check. He played a season-high 24:02, which led all Sabres defensemen, and had the primary assist on Victor Olofsson's goal in the second period. Dahlin was also the quarterback of a power play that converted on two of its three opportunities.
"Rasmus Dahlin was outstanding and he earned his 24 minutes," coach Ralph Krueger said. "Just pleased to see how he’s come out of his injury, and he seems fresh and energized and definitely helps on the power play, too."
The nerves from returning to the lineup were gone. So was the rust from missing eight games as the result of a concussion suffered on an illegal hit to the head by Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak on Nov. 25.
Dahlin led all Sabres defensemen with six shots on goal, not including his attempt that hit the post during their final power play Saturday. His impact was not limited to the man advantage, either. Dahlin and Brandon Montour formed a shut-down pairing, holding the Islanders to only six shot attempts at 5 on 5.
The Sabres had a 78.6% shot differential at 5 on 5 with Dahlin on the ice against Barzal, who centers the Islanders' top line. Opponents began to get more physical with Dahlin during the second half of his rookie season, when his 44 points were second in NHL history by a defenseman younger than 19 years old.
Dahlin didn't back down against the Islanders. He followed Barzal back to the bench during one verbal exchange, which forced a referee to skate over to encourage Dahlin to skate to the Sabres' bench. When Barzal's high hit resulted in a roughing penalty late in the third period, Dahlin shoved back and confronted him near the end boards.
"He wanted to fight a couple times, but I don’t know how to fight," Dahlin said of Barzal. "Give me a couple more years and I’ll learn from (Zach Bogosian). We’ll see."
The Sabres' power play was amid an 0-for-8 slump when Brock Nelson was penalized for holding Kyle Okposo's stick at 4:37 into the second period. Dahlin then corralled the puck near the blue line, drew an Islanders' defender toward his left to cut off a lane to Eichel and sent a pass over to Olofsson, whose slap shot from atop the right-wing circle tied the score, 1-1.
Dahlin did not have more than four shots on goal in any of his first 25 games this season and did not have one in 15:20 of ice time in his return from the concussion Thursday against Nashville. He also had a strong game defensively against the Islanders, knocking Barzal off the puck midway through the third period and setting up Henri Jokiharju for a scoring opportunity on the same shift.
With Barzal in the penalty box, Dahlin helped the Sabres cycle the puck on the power play in a way they had not been able to do since October. He hit the post with a wrist shot, twice kept the puck from crossing the blue line and helped set up Eichel's game-winning goal.
"I thought he was great on the power play," Eichel said. "It’s great to see him back. It looks like he’s finding his groove again. You see him moving around there making plays. A player like Ras is going to attract so much attention from the other team. He’s a defenseman who has the puck on his stick for a lot of the game. He does a good job of handling it, moving the puck. He’s got some grit in his game and it’s good to see."
"He’s so good at drawing guys in to him and many times he either gives it to me or Jack, and we have lots of time," Olofsson said. "He creates time and space for us on the power play and 5 on 5. It’s great to have him back."
Like most of his teammates, Dahlin's play dipped in November, and he was benched for the third period of a 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators in KeyBank Center on Nov. 16. The former Calder Trophy finalist seemed to be putting too much pressure on himself, which resulted in turnovers and mistakes in the defensive zone.
However, Dahlin had four strong games before the concussion, including two assists in a 5-2 road win over the Florida Panthers. Dahlin spent his time out of the lineup watching the Sabres from the KeyBank Center press box or on television. That gave him an opportunity to view the game from a different perspective, opening his eyes to where he could find an open teammate on the power play or on the breakout.
The absence didn't seem to affect him, after all.
"It’s hard to say you played good when you lose, but I felt really good," Dahlin said.