BUFFALO – After a six-week absence, center Casey Mittelstadt joined his teammates Wednesday morning, donning a gold non-contact jersey and skating with the Sabres as they prepared for their game against the Boston Bruins.
Now, when will Mittelstadt, who suffered an upper-body injury opening night, be able to play again? Wednesday’s game was the 18th straight he has missed.
The Sabres also play Friday, Saturday and Monday. Practice time is limited. They’re scheduled to have today 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 before he plays again.
“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 following the morning skate inside KeyBank Center. “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.
After scoring nine goals and 17 points over the final 22 games last season, he enjoyed a terrific training camp and appeared ready to seize his career-changing opportunities.
Then Mittelstadt was injured in the Sabres’ 5-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 14.
“He was one of those guys who didn’t want to leave here at the end of last year and trained extremely hard, he gets hurt (nine) minutes into Game 1,” Granato said. “So very excited to have him back. I think everybody collectively in that locker room when I mentioned he was going to join us in practice today, guys were energized and I know he is.”
The Sabres’ recent struggles – they were 2-8-1 in their last 11 games entering Wednesday – 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.”
When Mittelstadt was injured, the Sabres said he would be sidelined at least two weeks.
“It’s been long, but I haven’t really had any setbacks,” Mittelstadt said. “I think more than anything it’s just kind of a tricky injury. It’s just been slower than expected and something you can’t really mess with too much. I haven’t really had any setbacks. … It’s just been slow and steady.”
The Sabres made one lineup change up front against the Bruins, inserting Arttu Ruotsalainen for winger Drake Caggiula. Ruotsalainen skated at left wing beside center Zemgus Girgensons and John Hayden.
Ruotsalainen, a healthy scratch two straight games, played his first 15 games at center this season. The Finn played left wing with the Sabres last year.