BUFFALO – When you’re struggling and searching for anything to ignite the team, you experiment. So with nothing to lose, Sabres coach Ted Nolan paired Rasmus Ristolainen, 20, and rookie Nikita Zadorov, 19, together last game.
The defensemen became the Sabres’ top tandem in Saturday’s ugly 6-1 loss to Pittsburgh, each skating more than 20 minutes, more than Tyler Myers. Zadorov wasn’t on the ice for any goals against.
“If you look at both of them, one’s more on the defensive side (Ristolainen), one’s on the offensive side (Zadorov),” Nolan said Monday inside the First Niagara Center. “They’re both young. When you go through things like this, you don’t know any better. You might just find your way through it.”
The 2013 first-round picks will play together again tonight in St. Louis against the Blues.
“I think it’s awesome to play with a guy the same age as you,” Zadorov said.
Ristolainen added: “We were pretty good together, just have to get more games, then it’s easier to say how it goes. It was just the first game.”
Before the game, Zadorov was surprised to see the pairing.
“After the game,” he said, “I felt great.”
For Zadorov, playing against Penguins superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, a fellow Russian, was “unreal.”
“When I was a kid, I was just wishing to play against those guys,” he said. “Now I’m on the ice playing against the best guys in the world. I think it’s great.”
Ristolainen, the No. 8 pick, has played all season. Tonight will be his 51st NHL game. Meanwhile, Zadorov, the No. 16 pick, sat early before playing the last four contests. Tonight will be his 13th NHL contest.
Nolan has upped Zadorov’s minutes each appearance.
“It means a lot, it means coach trusts me in putting me in every situation on the ice,” Zadorov said.
He added: “I’m not really surprised. When you try to play every game good, you know you’re going to get … more opportunity to show coaches what you can do. For me, when I’m playing more, I’m playing better.”
Tyler Ennis is often the Sabres’ only offensive threat. So why did Nolan switch the speedster from center to right wing beside Zemgus Girgensons and Matt Moulson on Monday?
You try everything when you only have three wins and 18 goals in 16 games. Ennis has a team-high four goals.
“When you run into obstacles, you don’t stop and quit, and you got to find a way to get over around it or through it,” Nolan said.
Ennis, a center the last year or so, understands the move.
“As a team, it’s not going,” he said. “If I have to play wing, I got to be great at wing. I got to do my job. I didn’t do my job well enough at center. We’re not having a great start to the season. Maybe this will spark us.”
Nolan believes it could jumpstart Moulson, who has only one goal.
“We got to get Matty Moulson going,” he said. “Going with Girgensons and Tyler, we feel that could be a legitimate No. 1 line. So we’ll go from there.”
Nolan made one other surprising move Monday, putting Drew Stafford, a winger his entire career, at center between Nick Deslauriers, Cody Hodgson and Patrick Kaleta, who could play tonight.
Stafford visited Nolan’s office recently and asked about trying something new.
“He sees the position, he sees an opportunity,” Nolan said. “So we discussed it.”
Nolan wouldn’t say if Stafford will play center tonight.
In lineup news, Nolan said Kaleta, out since Sept. 28, has the “green light.” Winger Marcus Foligno can also play (shoulder, four games).
Only one will likely return.
“They’ll both be a little bit rusty missing some time,” Nolan said. “So we’ll see who the best of the best is feeling health-wise.”
Kaleta hasn’t played an NHL game since Oct. 10, 2013.
The other lines Monday: Torrey Mitchell, Brian Flynn, Brian Gionta; Foligno, Cody McCormick, Chris Stewart.
Nolan said goalie Michal Neuvirth will start tonight.
Sabres goalie Matt Hackett, out since suffering a gruesome knee injury April 12, has been practicing regularly as the third netminder. He’s still a ways away from returning.