BUFFALO – Expect the Sabres to run defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen ragged tonight during his return from an upper-body injury.
“When he says that he’s ready, he’s ready,” coach Phil Housley said this morning after the Sabres prepared for the Edmonton Oilers. “We’re going to play him in all situations like we have in the past. I don’t see anything wrong moving forward.”
So Ristolainen will likely play 25 or more minutes, many of them against Hart Trophy winner Connor McDavid, the superstar picked one spot ahead of Sabres center Jack Eichel in 2015. Ristolainen averaged 27 minutes, nine seconds of ice time in his first 13 outings.
“After missing nine games, he’s tied for the lead in our defensemen in scoring (with five assists), so you know how important he is for our team,” Housley said inside KeyBank Center. “I think right now, he’s just got to keep it simple … get into the game, feel comfortable.”
Few players, however, probably feel comfortable against McDavid, who already has 10 goals and 28 points.
“We can’t give him the freedom to move around, especially coming out of his own zone to the neutral zone, because that’s where he gets really dangerous,” Housley said.
With Ristolainen back, defenseman Josh Gorges will be scratched. The Sabres also sent defenseman Casey Nelson back to the AHL this morning.
The Sabres, losers of seven straight games (0-5-2), have an opponent who’s a bigger disappointment than them. The 8-12-2 Oilers were a popular Stanley Cup pick following a breakout season in 2016-17.
Right now, they rank seventh in the Pacific Division.
“We haven’t been very good this year and I think everyone’s made that very clear,” McDavid said. “The positives? We’ve got a chance to dig ourselves out of this.”
Following an awful 8-3 loss Tuesday in St. Louis, the Oilers responded with a 6-2 win Wednesday in Detroit.
Before joining the Oilers, coach Todd McLellan spent seven years coaching San Jose and three years as an assistant in Detroit. Both teams are expected to contend every season.
“You consistently have expectations put on you and you’re consistently in the playoffs and you know coming back that it starts all over again,” McLellan said. “You line up on the marathon line, if you will, and you remember how difficult it is to run that marathon. There’s hills, there’s valleys, there’s a lot of things that are obstacles to getting to the finish line.”
McLellan said the Oilers, a laughingstock before last season, did “a poor job” dealing with new expectations out of the gate this season.
“Now we’re trying to pull ourselves back into the pack, if you will,” he said. “There’s a lot of marathon left but you can’t fall too far behind. We’re doing what we can to pull ourselves back in.”
In other news, Sabres goalie Robin Lehner will start, his 17th appearance.
Seth Griffith and Matt Moulson are still the Sabres’ spare forwards.