Casey Mittelstadt hasn’t played since opening night. ©2021, Micheline Veluvolu

Casey Mittelstadt joins Sabres on ice, finally close return: ‘A huge step’

BUFFALO – After a 17-game absence, center Casey Mittelstadt joined his teammates this morning, donning a gold non-contact jersey and skating with the Sabres as they prepared for tonight’s game against the Boston Bruins.

Now, when will Mittelstadt, who suffered an upper-body injury opening night, be able to play again? He won’t return tonight.

The Sabres also play Friday, Saturday and Monday. Practice time is limited. They’re scheduled to have Thursday off.

“We haven’t really put an exact date on it,” Mittelstadt said on a Zoom call of his return. “I think it’s more so how I feel, especially when we get into the contact and things of that nature. But it’s been getting a lot better, especially the last week I’d say it’s improved a lot. So, obviously, yeah, the second I think I might play I’m gonna be in there.

“I’ve been champing at the bit. I wouldn’t rule anything out.”

Sabres coach Don Granato said Mittelstadt must have contact practices.

“We’re gonna read it day by day to see how he feels but he does need to go through at least a couple practices, I would say, with some good contact before we feel comfortable even assessing where he’s at,” Granato said. “But certainly a positive sign that he’s on the ice with us.”

The injury, of course, has been difficult for Mittelstadt to handle. In addition to earning a new gig as the Sabres’ No. 1 center, he has become a prominent member of the rebuilding team’s leadership group.

Mittelstadt enjoyed a terrific training camp and appeared ready to seize his career-changing opportunities. Then he was injured in the Sabres’ 5-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 14.

The Sabres’ recent struggles – they’re 2-8-1 in their last 11 games – have made sitting out and watching games more difficult.

“It was hard at first watching the guys get off to such a good start and not being a part of it, I think, was really tough for me,” Mittelstadt said. “Now, obviously, we’ve been struggling a little bit and I think it’s only gotten harder. I want to go out and I want to help the team. So that part of it’s been pretty tough.

“But … today was a huge step in the right direction both physically and mentally, being out there with the guys and getting to laugh and have fun in practice and not skating alone.”

In lineup news, Granato said goalie Aaron Dell will start tonight, his second nod in the last three games. Goalie Dustin Tokarski, who has been handling the load with Craig Anderson injured, has been pulled from his last two starts.

Granato said the Sabres will make a change up front, inserting Arttu Ruotsalainen, who sat out the last two games as a healthy scratch. It’s unclear which forward will be scratched.

After playing center all season, Granato said Ruotsalainen will move back to wing. The Finn played left wing all of last year in the NHL.

Here are the lines and pairs from the morning skate inside KeyBank Center. It’s unclear where Ruotsalainen will play.

Forwards (from left to right):

Jeff Skinner, Tage Thompson and Victor Olofsson

Drake Caggiula, Dylan Cozens and Vinnie Hinostroza

Rasmus Asplund, Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo

Anders Bjork, Cody Eakin and John Hayden

Defense (from left to right):

Rasmus Dahlin and Mark Pysyk

Jacob Bryson and Henri Jokiharju

Robert Hagg and Colin Miller

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