Evan Rodrigues moved up to the top line Thursday. ©2018, Michline Veluvolu, Olean Times Herald

Sabres’ Evan Rodrigues back beside college linemate Jack Eichel

BUFFALO – Three years ago, Jack Eichel and Evan Rodrigues formed perhaps college hockey’s best duo, piling up points during Boston University’s run to the national championship game.

Eichel won the Hobey Baker Award as a freshman. Meanwhile, Rodrigues enjoyed a monster senior season, compiling 61 points in 41 games.

“We kind of knew where each other were all over the ice,” Rodrigues said Thursday prior to scoring his first goal in 22 games. “We seemed to click, seemed to be able to make plays kind of without looking at each other.

But other than the odd shift with the Sabres, Eichel and Rodrigues hadn’t skated together as NHL linemates until Thursday’s 4-3 win against the New York Islanders inside KeyBank Center.

With Johan Larsson back from his two-game suspension, the Sabres have five centers. So coach Phil Housley moved Rodrigues to the left wing beside Eichel and Sam Reinhart.

“Just trying to change different things, just trying to get everybody going,” Housley said. “I think (Rodrigues) could really have good chemistry with Jack.”

Perhaps playing with his close friend, the Sabres’ No. 1 center, can ignite the speedy Rodrigues. He hadn’t scored since a two-goal performance Dec. 10, his third game this season.

“I started to press a little bit, it’s in the back of my mind, I’m starting to almost force things,” Rodrigues said. “I have to continue to remind myself just to play simple, let my offensive instincts take over.”

Housley even scratched Rodrigues, 24, last week.

“You kind of take a step back and sometimes you have to do that just to take a step back to forward,” Rodrigues said. “That’s what I’m trying to do here. It’s good to regroup, watch a game from the stands, pick things from the game.”

Rodrigues scored 13:21 into the first period before assisting on Reinhart’s late winner.

“I’m really happy for Evan getting a goal, and hopefully that’ll boost his confidence,” Housley said. “But I really liked that line. They really mixed well.”

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With Jake McCabe out three to four weeks after undergoing thumb surgery Thursday and Rasmus Ristolainen struggling, the Sabres’ defense corps looked much different.

Casey Nelson, a recent recall quickly earning Housley’s trust, played with Marco Scandella, Ristolainen’s partner much of the season on the No. 1 pair. Ristolainen, meanwhile, moved back and skated with Nathan Beaulieu.

“He understands he hasn’t played well since the All-Star break,” Housley said of Ristolainen’s recent play. “He puts enough pressure on himself. I have no problem with the way he’s been competing down low and battling. I think just the execution on passes, getting shots to the net has to be better.”

Housley said he likes the way Nelson is “moving the puck and defending.”

“His first pass is usually really good and on the tape and I like the way he’s defending, trying to keep his inside position, especially against bigger players,” he said. “But also in the offensive zone, I really like the way he finds lanes and gets pucks to the net. He has a great way of changing his angle.”

With McCabe out and defenseman Justin Falk a healthy scratch, Victor Antipin and Josh Gorges, scratches Tuesday, returned as a tandem.

While McCabe has endured a tough year, he is still one of the Sabres best defensemen.

“It’s tough,” Housley said of McCabe’s loss.

McCabe blocked a shot early in Tuesday’s 4-3 overtime loss to Anaheim.

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For years, Sabres coaches have said they want to trim Ristolainen’s ice time. For years, the workhorse Finnish defenseman has kept skating big minutes.

Of course, those coaches – first Dan Bylsma and now Housley – haven’t had many options beyond Ristolainen. Bad teams usually don’t possess much defense depth.

An injury or a struggling defenseman means the Sabres must lean on Ristolainen, 23, even more.

Thanks to McCabe’s early departure Tuesday, Ristolainen played a season-high 32 minutes, 39 seconds on a night he was struggling.

“He’s going to get about 25 minutes, depending on what type of game it is,” Housley said this morning. “I feel that if we can keep him around 24 or 25, that’s where he’s at his best.”

After that mark, Housley said, Ristolainen’s play begins to dip. His errant pass in overtime Tuesday helped sink the Sabres.

“It just seems like his process is slow, his passes are slow, he’s slow to react,” Housley said. “So we’re going to try to keep him at a good number. But obviously, where we are, the players we’re missing on defense, it’s hard, but we’re going to try to spread those guys around.”

Ristolainen hasn’t averaged below 25 minutes an outing since 2014-15. The five-year veteran had averaged 26:28 – his exact number as last season – through 44 appearances this season entering Thursday. He had only skated below 25 minutes nine times.

Notes: The Sabres also scratched winger Scott Wilson. … Housley said defense prospect Brendan Guhle, out with a lower-body injury since Jan. 20 with the Rochester Americans, has started skating and is day-to-day.

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