BUFFALO – The Sabres can soften Jack Eichel’s loss, of course, if some of their other top players – think Ryan O’Reilly and Rasmus Ristolainen – step up and seize additional opportunities in his absence.
If they don’t, what could happen without Eichel, their most dynamic presence and leading scorer? They won only 16 of their first 55 games with Eichel, who’s sidelined indefinitely after suffering a high right ankle sprain Saturday.
In Sunday’s 5-4 loss to the Colorado Avalanche, a game the Sabres somehow hung around in despite being thoroughly outplayed, Ristolainen performed terribly, enduring arguably the worst night of his career.
Just 43 seconds into the game, Alexander Kerfoot scored after a long stretch pass burned Ristolainen and Nathan Beaulieu, his defense partner.
Ristolainen couldn’t keep the puck in at the blue line later in the period, allowing Matt Nieto’s short-handed breakaway to restore Colorado’s lead.
Early in the second period, Ristolainen coughed up the puck, leading to Colin Wilson’s goal.
“There was some passengers tonight unprepared to play the game,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said when asked about Ristolainen’s play.
Incredibly, Ristolainen was on the ice for all of Colorado’s goals.
Housley, who recently demoted Ristolainen, only played the Finn on special teams the rest of the period. When Ristolainen skated at even strength later, he didn’t have a regular partner.
“I played bad and that’s a coach’s decision,” said Ristolainen, who skated 23 minutes, 48 seconds. “Got to respect that.”
Housley said: “I don’t think the game was going his way, so I just decided to mix up the pairs.”
Last month, Ristolainen, the Sabres’ top defenseman for years, piled up points. What has happened to him?
“It could be preparation, the confidence,” Housley said. “I just don’t see him sharp in his game right now. I think that’s going back to the All-Star break. I think he’s got to refocus and get his game back.”
Has Ristolainen lost his confidence?
“You can always keep your confidence,” he said. “I know what I can do. It’s not about that.”
O’Reilly, meanwhile, looked like a star. Against his his former team, the versatile center compiled a goal and three points, including his 400th in the NHL, while skating a game-high 26 minutes, 48 seconds.
“Ryan had a terrific game,” Housley said. “You could see he was prepared, he was willing to go to the hard areas, he was doing everything right and he got rewarded for it. … He did everything he could do to help us win a game.”
O’Reilly created two short-handed goals – first Benoit Pouliot’s and then Casey Nelson’s, his first NHL goal – and also scored on the power play late before the crowd of 17,646 inside KeyBank Center.
Still, fresh off Saturday’s 4-2 win in Boston, O’Reilly wasn’t happy.
“We got away from just our game plan,” he said. “Coming in, we had a little different mindset against Boston when we knew were just going to play a hard game all night and kind of commit. Tonight we got a little lazy.
“It’s on myself, I had a couple little errors early that I can’t be doing. I’ve got to set the example and guys got to follow it. It’s disappointing because we could have taken that one.”
Housley said the Sabres “totally got away from a simple game.”
“Getting pucks deep, forechecking, working in the offensive zone, we wanted to play an east-west game, (we were) turning pucks over through the middle of the ice,” he said.
After Colorado went up 5-2, O’Reilly and Evander Kane scored late to make the game interesting.
Avalanche center J.T. Compher, a former Sabres prospect, has 11 goals and 20 points in his first full NHL season.
The Sabres drafted Compher, 22, in the second round, 35th overall, in 2013. He has just finished his sophomore season at Michigan when the Sabres traded him to Colorado in the blockbuster O’Reilly trade in 2015.
“He’s an intelligent player, plays with good pace, he’s got a certain amount of grit to his game, he plays center and wing, plays on both specialty teams so he’s killed penalties, playing a spot on the power play regular for us,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “He’s been snake-bit at times, he creates quite a few chances with his speed and his tenacity and he’s kind of scored in bunches.”
Compher played 21 minutes, eight seconds Sunday, the most of any Colorado forward.
Notes: The Sabres recalled winger Nick Baptiste from the Rochester Americans prior to the game but scratched him. Winger Zemgus Girgensons returned after missing Saturday’s game (flu). … With Eichel out, veteran winger Jason Pominville served as an alternate captain. … The Sabres’ nine short-handed goals are tied for the league lead. … The Sabres also scratched defenseman Josh Gorges.