BUFFALO – One of the best stretches of Casey Mittelstadt’s 57-game NHL career – two goals and four points over seven recent contests – hasn’t boosted the Sabres rookie’s confidence.
“I don’t think I’m more confident or anything,” Mittelstadt said prior to Friday’s 7-3 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks inside KeyBank Center. “I don’t struggle in that department.”
Mittelstadt, 20, doesn’t lack confidence.
“I know what I’m capable of doing,” the slick center said.
Mittelstadt’s many talents – he possesses ultra-soft hands and supreme vision – are undeniable. Still, he understands his skill will only take him so far.
“He’s got a great swagger about him,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said. “He wants to improve, he wants to be coached, he wants to learn, he wants to get better. He’s a competitive player, and throughout his process he’s done a terrific job trying to get his defensive zone reads and having a better awareness.”
Following a standout junior and college career, Mittelstadt hasn’t exactly roared into the big leagues. After recording an assist Friday, the former eighth overall pick has compiled seven goals and 16 points in 51 outings this season.
But whenever Mittelstadt jumps on the ice, it feels like something dynamic could happen.
“Once I get the puck, I know what I can do,” Mittelstadt said. “I always want the puck on my stick. I never had a shortage of that. I think that’s the best part about playing hockey, is when you’re carrying the puck, you make plays.”
Mittelstadt has been consistently creating offense, offering the Sabres some much-needed secondary scoring. Meanwhile, Evan Rodrigues and Conor Sheary, Mittelstadt’s speedy wingers, have also busted out of slumps.
For the first time since November, the Sabres have received regular offensive contributions from a line other than captain Jack Eichel’s.
“Speed and chemistry,” Rodrigues said of why the trio has worked well. “The three of us can move our feet. We’re getting in on the forecheck. We have that mindset that we can get two, three guys in there and know that each one of us is going to slam on the brakes and get back and be able to catch someone if they get an odd-man break.”
Housley said: “I like that line. They’re working, and that’s a simple formula.”
What changes has Rodrigues seen in Mittelstadt?
“Probably confidence,” Rodrigues said. “He’s getting a chance to make the plays he’s capable of making. He wants the puck on his stick, he wants to make a play, he’s doing the little things right.”
Mittelstadt said: “Maybe if you’re doing the little things right, you get to have the puck back as much as you can that way. That’s been the focus. I don’t think too much has changed.”
After sitting out two games as a healthy scratch, rookie defenseman Lawrence Pilut returned Friday.
Housley changed his blue line in the previous two contests, inserting Matt Hunwick and Nathan Beaulieu while Pilut, 23, watched.
While Housley said he liked what the veterans showcased, Pilut, an offensive-minded youngster fans have been clamoring to see, played his first game since Jan. 18.
“I’m probably going to be a little rusty,” Pilut said Friday morning. “I feel that I’ll be back in it quick if it’s like that. I feel good, I feel mentally fresh.”
Pilut, an AHL All-Star, stayed with the Sabres during their bye week and the NHL All-Star break. Housley paired the Swede beside Marco Scandella. Pilut also played on the power play.
Housley said he wants Pilut to “just keep the game simpler.”
“I really like Lawrence’s game,” Housley said. “He moves the puck well, he has great vision, he’s got poise with the puck, especially at the offensive blue line.”
Pilut has compiled one goal and five points in his first 17 NHL outings.
The Sabres also inserted winger Jason Pominville, a healthy scratch for Wednesday’s 1-0 loss in Dallas, on Friday. Winger Remi Elie stayed in the lineup because center Johan Larsson (undisclosed) couldn’t play.
Notes: Sabres winger Sam Reinhart played his 300th NHL game. … Sabres rookie Rasmus Dahlin has recorded six multi-point games this season, more than all but two 18-year-old defensemen in NHL history: Housley and Bobby Orr.