BUFFALO – Following Thursday’s exciting 7-6 shootout win in Detroit, Sabres center Casey Mittelstadt showered and immediately phoned his younger brothers.
Mittelstadt, 24, had just registered two assists against the Red Wings, his third multi-point outing in the last four contests, as the Sabres won for the fifth time in seven tries.
That game, however, wasn’t on his mind. He wanted to celebrate his brother Luke’s memorable two-goal performance in the Frozen Four semifinal win that earned the Minnesota Golden Gophers a spot in tonight’s national championship game against Quinnipiac.
“For me, growing up, it was like the Gophers were bigger than the Wild,” said Mittelstadt, who grew up in Eden Prairie, about a 20-mile drive to Minnesota’s campus. “… It’s a big deal.”
Luke Mittelstadt, a freshman defenseman, had three goals all season before scoring twice in less than two minutes early in the third period to break a 2-2 tie. The Golden Gophers then cruised to a 6-2 win over Boston University.
Mittelstadt’s other brother, John, is a freshman forward on the team.
“I’m super excited for them,” said Mittelstadt, whose Sabres host the Carolina Hurricanes this afternoon at KeyBank Center. “It’s a pretty cool opportunity and it means so much back in Minnesota, too.”
Right now, Mittelstadt’s brothers are living a dream he never realized. In his one season at Minnesota, 2017-18, the Golden Gophers did not qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
Following his freshman year, he joined the Sabres and played his first six games. Back then, he was one of hockey’s top prospects. In addition to being the eighth overall pick in 2017, he had just been named MVP of the World Junior Championship in Buffalo.
Mittelstadt arrived in the NHL with loads of expectations. The past five years have often been challenging. He has endured starts and stops, injuries and even a demotion.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” he said following Friday’s practice. “But at the same time, I think I learned a lot and it’s been fun. I’m happy with where we are at right now.”
Over the past few months, Mittelstadt has emerged as one of the Sabres’ best forwards as they’ve battled for a playoff spot. During the last six games, he has been their most dynamic playmaker, registering nine assists.
He has enjoyed a career-best season, compiling 10 goals, 41 assists and 51 points. His previous career high for points was just 25.
“He’s making plays with greater precision and timing and with a better awareness of vulnerabilities,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “But he’s always had a swagger. And I think he’s learning the league and learning situations better. He’s not taking as many risks to make plays. He’s got a greater calm where he says ‘You know what, I don’t have a play to be made here, so I’m not going to force a play.’”
With leading scorer Tage Thompson battling an upper-body injury, he has recently been filling in at center, his natural position, between Jeff Skinner and Alex Tuch.
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Mittelstadt has always possessed the skill and smarts to be a high-end NHL scorer. His competitiveness, Granato said, has buoyed his growth this season.
“If (your opponent) raises the bar, you’ve got to be willing to raise the bar,” he said. “If he punches you in the nose, you better be ready to go one better. And Casey has that. He has grit and compete.”
Today’s game will be Mittelstadt’s 78th this year, a new career high. He hasn’t played a full season since his rookie campaign in 2018-19.
A year ago, he battled injuries for the first time, missing 42 contests. This season, he has been a presence from the get-go. However, he generated most of his early offense on the power play, recording just three of his first 12 points at even strength.
Still, Mittelstadt has mostly been utilized as a third-line winger. Playing down the lineup meant he often skated with the Sabres’ third defense tandem.
As the No. 1 center, he usually shares the ice with Rasmus Dahlin and the team’s other offensive defensemen.
“When you’re on the third line, you don’t have that,” Granato said. “So lots of times, Casey didn’t have top-two line pairing offensive defensemen with him. That’s a significant impact. And so he’s taken advantage of this as an opportunity. But he’s always kept himself prepared to take advantage of that.”
Granato said he used Mittelstadt’s performance on the power play as a barometer. He now has 34 even-strength points.
“Yes, this guy is effective when you give him four offensive-processing people around him,” he said. “He will fit in and create to make plays. A credit to Casey to endure and stay on it and fight until that opportunity comes.”
Thompson, who played right wing in Detroit, was one of several Sabres who had maintenance days Friday.
“It’s a situation where he’s got to deal with it and he’s going to fight through it,” Granato said of Thompson’s injury. “So today was a day to help that recovery so he can charge back up for tomorrow.”