BUFFALO – Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen never expected he would be suspended for hitting Pittsburgh rookie Jake Guentzel in the head Tuesday. Coach Dan Bylsma never expected the ban would be so long.
But in the end, the Sabres will be without their No. 1 defenseman and arguably best player for the next three games, starting with tonight’s home tilt against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I didn’t expect anything,” Ristolainen said Friday following practice inside KeyBank Center.
Bylsma said: “I didn’t think it was going to be three games.”
In suspending Ristolainen on Thursday for checking Guentzel, the NHL said the Finn made “substantial head contact” and could’ve altered his path toward a player ineligible to be hit.
“They are the decision-makers, so I got to respect the decision they made,” Ristolainen said.
Ristolainen was given a five-minute major penalty for interference and ejected 8:46 into Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to the Penguins when he skated backward into Guentzel, leveling the rookie as he waited for a pass that was intercepted just outside his own blue line.
What did league officials tell Ristolainen during his hearing with the NHL Department of Player Safety earlier Thursday?
“He didn’t have the puck,” he said. “I have to make sure when I hit he has the puck.”
The concussion Guentzel suffered on the hit and Ristolainen’s previously clean record in his four-year career also factored in the three-game ban, said Patrick Burke, a director in the Department of Player Safety, in a video explaining the suspension.
Ristolainen said he told officials he was trying to find the puck. He only had a split-second to make a decision after the puck was knocked away from Guentzel’s direction.
“I don’t know what I can really do different because it was a split-second, half second … and I was skating backwards and it’s really hard to stop there, and I don’t think I can,” Ristolainen said.
Sabres defenseman Josh Gorges added: “It’s split-second decisions. That’s all it is, a split-second. If that ended up coming, didn’t get separated, didn’t get separated, it’s a clean hit and we don’t even talk about this. But I think the intentions of the hit were not to be dirty, malicious or hurt anybody.”
So for the next eight days – Ristolainen is eligible to return April 2 against the New York Islanders – he can only practice.
“It’s frustrating this point in the year, late in the year, just practice can’t play, can’t do anything,” Ristolainen said.
Bylsma said: “You’re missing a 27-minute-a-night guy who’s in every situation for you. That’s one you can’t replace.”
Good teams always seem to get more breaks. It’s very possible if the Sabres were in the playoff hunt or a perennial contender, Ristolainen’s suspension would’ve been much lighter.
“I definitely think that’s part of the process we’re in is getting respect in the league with how we are as an organization and how we play,” Bylsma said.
That feeling the other side receives more breaks has probably been around forever.
“I’m not so sure it’s a real feeling, but it’s one you think of, you feel playing Detroit in the 80s,” Bylsma said. “Like, ‘Oh, they get all the calls’ and they get favorable treatment. I think that’s one you earn and you get that respect by how you play and how you are on the ice, not by the color of your jersey.”
Bylsma said wingers William Carrier (bone bruise) and (Kyle Okposo (ribs) and defensemen Justin Falk (bone bruise) and Dmitry Kulikov (upper body) should all return tonight.
The Sabres also need to recall a defenseman.
The Buffalo chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association has nominated Sabres captain Brian Gionta for the Masterton Trophy, an annual award that recognizes “perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”
Gionta, 38, has 14 goals and 32 points in 74 games this season and still skates almost 17 minutes a contest.
The Rochester Americans have signed three players, including goalie Jonas Johansson, the 61st pick by the Sabres in 2014, to amateur tryouts.
The Swede, 21, went 17-18-0 with a 2.26 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage in 37 games with Altmtuna IS of HockeyAllsvenskan, a league in Sweden.