Rasmus Ristolainen did not hesitate to skate to the net when his Buffalo Sabres teammate, Marcus Johansson, went to the bench in the second period Saturday afternoon.
Ristolainen, a 25-year-old defenseman, had confidence that whichever forward stepped on the ice would know to cover the blue line. So, Ristolainen crept toward the net and was in position to score on a rebound off Jeff Skinner's shot to ignite the Sabres' offense.
"I feel that's my office now, the blue paint," Ristolainen joked following the Sabres' 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings in KeyBank Center.
Last season, those sort of risks often led to an opponent earning an odd-man rush. However, better defensive play by the Sabres' forwards, particularly at 5 on 5, has freed up their defensemen to contribute more offense.
Ristolainen and Marco Scandella scored the tying and go-ahead goals, respectively, Saturday to buoy an offense that was in desperate need of secondary scoring behind Jack Eichel, Victor Olofsson and Sam Reinhart.
“I think our forwards are really working two ways," Ristolainen said. "It’s really easy to trust them, they’re coming back. I saw maybe one forward was changing there, so I felt a little chance to go down to the net and the puck got to me and I put it in.”
The trust wasn't always there last season. Though former coach Phil Housley encouraged his defensemen to pinch in the offensive zone, the Sabres' forwards failed to understand their responsibility to protect against a quick breakout pass and potential odd-man rush.
When Johansson left the ice to end a one-minute shift, Eichel knew to remain close to the blue line in the event of a Sabres turnover. Meanwhile, Ristolainen was left alone in front of the net to score on Skinner's rebound to tie the game, 1-1, with 12:25 remaining in the second period.
The goal and subsequent comeback showed a "mature sign" within the Sabres, coach Ralph Krueger said. They had a poor response in a 6-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday when Eichel was scratched after warmups with an upper-body injury and entered Saturday on a three-game winless streak.
This was Buffalo's third slow start in as many games and it was thoroughly outplayed during the first period, though the Kings did not take the lead until Adrian Kempe scored on a shot from the slot at 1:32 into the second period.
"You can see D diving in and making some more plays, playing with more confidence," Scandella said. "Opening up space for the forwards and, at the same time, we’re going to be getting chances, too."
Ristolainen has nine points in the Sabres' previous 12 games and, entering Saturday, his plus-11 rating since Nov. 29 ranked fourth in the NHL. His three goals this season are tied with Henri Jokiharju for the most among Sabres defensemen, all of whom are benefiting in Krueger's system.
Sabres defensemen have combined for 83 points through 37 games, despite losing Rasmus Dahlin for eight games. Dahlin is second on the Sabres with 19 assists, four defensemen have at least 10 points and six have at least two goals. It was only the second time this season multiple defensemen scored for the Sabres.
Some of that offense is the product of better breakout passes. The Sabres struggled to exit their defensive zone last season because forwards were often cheating too far up in the neutral zone, which led to turnovers and led to an opponent generating offense in transition.
Buffalo is working as a five-man unit, as illustrated on Scandella's goal at 16:48 into the second period. Reinhart drew a Kings forward away from the blue line by chipping the puck into the corner and passed back to Scandella, whose slap shot ricocheted off Los Angeles defenseman Drew Doughty and into the net for a 2-1 lead.
"I feel like the forwards are really working hard for us, and I feel like we have really good skating defensemen out there," Scandella said. "But we have forwards who can find us and we’re playing with confidence right now and trusting each other."
The evolution of the Sabres' defense corps began without the puck. Krueger implemented a different defensive-zone structure after the team's man-to-man system was picked apart to the tune of 3.30 goals against per game last season.
Comfort in Krueger's system has given the Sabres more confidence in the offensive zone. With eight healthy defensemen on the roster, Krueger opted to use only 11 forwards against the Kings. His players appear to be growing more accustomed to that unorthodox lineup.
"It’s part of the seven D philosophy that you can really release yourself more," Krueger said. "You know if you get caught out for a longer shift there’s an opportunity for a break, and I think the guys are starting to get used to that. It’s not the norm in the National Hockey League, so very few defensemen are going to like playing with seven. But it does give us more of an opportunity to involve them in the offense and to get a little more cycling going."
A responsible defensive approach allowed the Sabres to improve to 14-0 when leading after two periods, and they are 17-13-7 this season with one game remaining before the holiday break. Ristolainen's goal sparked a turnaround that included 22 shots on goal over the final two periods.
Olofsson scored an empty-net goal with 1:33 remaining in regulation for his 24th point in 22 games, and his 34 points this season lead all NHL rookies. Eichel also assisted on the Sabres' final goal to record a point in his 18th consecutive game, though the injury officially ended his streak Thursday night in Philadelphia.
Eichel's 18 straight games with a point marks the fifth-longest personal streak in the NHL in the last decade, and he finished one off the franchise record held by Gilbert Perreault.
Skinner recorded his first point in seven games, and Curtis Lazar had an impressive performance while filling in for Johan Larsson, who is expected to miss at least one more game with an upper-body injury. The Sabres need to find more offense when Eichel's line isn't producing and their defensemen could potentially be part of the solution.
"Tonight I thought the D did a really good job of being involved in both ends of the rink," Krueger said.