BUFFALO – There were still 16.8 seconds left on the clock, but Rasmus Ristolainen figured what the heck, his second goal of the game, the winner in the Sabres’ exciting 3-2 victory against goalie Ryan Miller’s Vancouver Canucks, needed to be celebrated wildly.
So the defenseman skated to center ice, slid down on his knees and yelled out as the capacity crowd of 19,070 fans roared Saturday afternoon. Tyler Ennis, whose dynamic effort created the goal, hugged Ristolainen, dragging him past the red line.
Seconds later, every teammate on the ice was mobbing Ristolainen, even goalie Linus Ullmark!
“I guess he’s been waiting to celly like that,” coach Dan Bylsma said about Ristolainen following the Sabres’ third win in four games.
The Sabres, who have been outshooting opponents and limiting chances most of the season, hardly played their best game Saturday. They blew a 2-0 second-period lead. The Canucks outshot them 37-22, including 15-4 in the first period.
Still, thanks to Ristolainen, who shadowed the Canucks’ No. 1 line all game, and Ullmark’s strong goaltending, the Sabres eked out a victory.
Ristolainen, 21, deserved to celebrate his 155th and perhaps most memorable NHL game.
“He plays above his age,” said Josh Gorges, Ristolainen’s defense partner. “In tight situations late in games, he’s playing against one of the best lines of the last 10, 15 years (with Daniel and Henrik Sedin) and he keeps his composure. … Then you see what he does when he gets the puck on the blue line in the offensive zone.”
Ristolainen’s wrist shot from high in the slot beat Miller as the capacity crowd implored him to shoot.
“Actually, I didn’t hear anything,” said Ristolainen, who had his first two-goal outing. “I knew I got to take a shot. I just wanted to take a look and find a way.”
But Ennis’ slick jaunt – he skated by four Canucks into the Vancouver zone before feeding Marcus Foligno in front – did the real work.
“That was all Tyler Ennis,” Foligno said about the winner. “Those were amazing moves he made to get in the zone. I just thought when he dished it to me I was kind of in front I had good body positioning and I just got my head up. I saw (Ristolainen) by himself and he had a hell of a game tonight.”
Every part of the goal wowed Bylsma.
“I don’t know what the best part of the play was, Tyler carrying the puck and dancing through the four guys and entering the zone and making the play to Marcus, or the end result, the goal,” he said.
The assist was huge for Ennis, who has been struggling a bit. Bylsma took Ennis away from Ryan O’Reilly, his regular center, and paired him beside Zemgus Girgensons most of the game.
“I thought it was a big goal for him,” Bylsma said. “He didn’t score. I know he’s been pressing to score. He really makes the play with his dancing ability up the ice.”
After Jamie McGinn opened the scoring 2:18 into the second period, Ristolainen scored from the point on the power play, beating a screened Miller.
Rookie Jack Eichel assisted on both goals, the center’s first two in the NHL.
Henrik Sedin scored at 13:33 after Ullmark stopped the Canucks’ first 22 shots. Chris Higgins tied it 10:15 into the third period.
Without Ullmark, the Canucks might’ve taken a commanding lead early. The rookie, who was yanked after allowing three goals in the first period in Thursday’s 4-1 loss to Tampa Bay, looked sharp throughout his fourth straight start.
Remember, the Swede, 22, has played only five NHL games and eight in North America.
“Probably six or seven (strong scoring chances) he was big on,” Bylsma said. “Probably the best player on the ice for us.”
Gorges added: “This game is always a mental battle, and it’s hard when you’ve been in the league 10, 11, 12, 13 years. When you’re in your first year and you’re trying to make your mark, earn your spot on the team, it’s tough to stay in the right frame of mind. … He looked calm in the net again.”
Beating Miller, the Sabres’ all-time wins leader, was special.
“I just think about it before the game, but when you’re into the game you don’t think about it,” Ullmark said. “He’s just an opponent you want to beat. It was a special feeling. But now afterwards I think about facing Ryan and it was an awesome opportunity.”