BUFFALO – Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen had a split-second decision to make as Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby dished the puck up to Jake Guentzel near their blue line early in Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to the Penguins.
Ristolainen could lay back and play it safe, or he could assume the short pass would be completed and step up and throttle Guentzel.
The Finn went for the hit, but the pass was intercepted by teammate Zemgus Girgensons. Guentzel’s head and upper body then absorbed a wicked hit as Ristolainen skated backward into him.
Ristolainen was given a five-minute major penalty for interference and ejected 8:46 into the contest. Guentzel, meanwhile, left with a concussion.
A suspension could be looming for the Sabres’ top defenseman.
“I don’t like the fact he got ejected,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “It’s an unfortunate play. He’s stepping up … and the puck that is coming to Guentzel is stopped by Zemgus. Guentzel’s unsuspecting at that point in time. Rasmus is committed to the hit.”
Sabres defenseman Josh Gorges, Ristolainen’s partner, said: “The puck stopped and didn’t continue to go. I don’t know if Risto saw that. I think he thought 99 percent of the plays that puck continues all the way to the guy’s tape and it’s a good hit.”
Considering the Sabres have four injured defensemen, Ristolainen’s minutes – he often surpasses 30 – have become even more critical in recent games. Right now, they’re using their ninth and 10th defenders on the depth chart.
Without Ristolainen, the Sabres hung tough, even after Crosby scorched them for one of the greatest goals of his illustrious career later in the first period.
In a season filled with impressive victories – for a seventh-place team, the Sabres curiously have a lot – a triumph over the defending Stanley Cup champions would’ve ranked among the best.
But the Penguins pulled away, getting the winner from Nick Bonino 14:31 into the third period after Sam Reinhart tied it at 2:09. Conor Sheary’s goal – Girgensons knocked a rebound past goalie Robin Lehner into his own net – sealed it at 16:29, ending the Sabres’ short two-game winning streak.
“Losing our No. 1 guy, that’s always going to be tough,” Gorges said. “I think we were OK. But we didn’t do enough things when we put ourselves in that position to give ourselves a real good chance.”
Bylsma said: “It was a tough go for our group. We played (Monday) night.”
That showed when Crosby opened the scoring before the 18,313 fans inside KeyBank Center. His power-play goal 19:51 into the first period might’ve been his best ever.
Crosby zoomed through the neutral zone, scorched four Sabres – yes, all four players on the ice – and used a one-handed backhander to beat Lehner for his NHL-best 41st goal.
“He had a ton of speed through the middle of the ice, kind of rolled through the seam,” said Bylsma, Crosby’s former coach. “It’s something he’s done many times before, squeaked his way in there and made a pretty amazing shot, backhand kind of flip.”
Lehner, who dazzled while making 31 saves, didn’t have a chance.
“Most goalies in the league are going to read he’s going to pull that back to his forehand,” Lehner said. “That’s what I thought. There’s probably one or maybe two guys in the league that can score a goal like that.”
Lehner left the warm-up early after taking a shot in the back but was never in jeopardy of missing the game.
Crosby was unavailable for comment after the game because Sabres winger Evander Kane high-sticked him in the waning seconds, knocking out two teeth. Earlier in the game, Crosby hit Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly in the groin area.
The Penguins’ 46th win clinched a playoff spot for the 11th straight season.