BUFFALO – In Tage Thompson’s absence last season, Casey Mittelstadt filled in superbly as the No. 1 center, helping the Sabres’ top line remain one of the NHL’s most lethal.
Still, Thompson, having established himself as one of the NHL’s elite scorers, can’t be replaced. He scored 47 goals and 94 points last season. He had five goals and 11 points during a nine-game stretch before blocking a shot with his left hand or wrist in Tuesday’s 5-2 home loss to the Boston Bruins.
The Sabres understand that while he recovers from his upper-body injury – coach Don Granato said Thompson will be sidelined “less than a couple months”– the entire group must help fill the massive void.
“We’re going to miss the hell out of Tommer and what he brings to this team and what he brings to the locker room as well,” Mittelstadt said following Wednesday’s practice in KeyBank Center. “He’s such a good player. We always talk about that. I think we’re definitely going to miss having him around and some of his stories and some of his jokes.
“It’s definitely a big loss, but it’s an opportunity for other guys to step up at the same time.”
The bulk of the responsibility, however, will likely fall on Mittelstadt and center Dylan Cozens. The Sabres possess terrific depth down the middle.
“When you lose a player like Tage, you can compensate by playing better as a team and a lot of times your focus actually gears toward that more,” Granato said. “We hope that’s the case. We do know we can play better as a group of five that are on that ice and six as a goalie. We knew before this injury we still haven’t hit rhythm with that, consistency with that, and despite the loss of Tage, the focus and commitment to what we need to improve on hasn’t changed one bit in that regard.
“That goes for Casey Mittelstadt and Dylan Cozens, who might feel they need to do more. They don’t.”
In the four games Thompson missed late last season, Mittelstadt recorded one goal and eight points. Since March 25, the 28 even-strength points he has recorded in 27 games ranks second in the league.
It’s possible Mittelstadt, 24, will move up again to pivot Jeff Skinner and Alex Tuch, who’s expected to practice today after missing the last three games with an upper-body injury.
“I definitely think I have a little comfort in my preparation and what I do to get ready for games now,” Mittelstadt said. “I don’t think it needs to change. I have confidence out there and I think I can take on a challenge.”
Mittelstadt, having scored three goals and 13 points, which is tied for the team lead, in 16 outings this season, has almost picked up where he left off last year. Cozens, however, has struggled a bit following a 31-goal, 68-point breakout campaign.
Cozens, 22, understands he will need to produce more with Thompson sidelined.
“As a centerman, I know I’m going to have to step up here,” he said. “I know I haven’t been playing as best as I can to start this year, but I think it’s an opportunity for me to find my game and get going here.”
Cozens’ assist Tuesday ended a five-game point drought. Overall, he has compiled three goals and eight points in 14 contests.
What has been missing from his game this season?
“Last year, I felt like I carried the puck with speed a lot more and I feel like I haven’t quite gotten to that yet,” Cozens said. “Just carrying with confidence up the ice and being a shooting threat. I haven’t had as many looks I think so far this year, so I want to get more to the inside of the ice and get to the net more and skate with the puck with speed.”
Cozens has been moving around, sometimes skating at right wing in an attempt to ignite him or so he could play with more scorers in an injury-depleted lineup, according to Granato. But with Thompson out, expect to him to stay in the middle.
He missed two games earlier this month after suffering an upper-body injury in a fight – he appeared to break his nose – and has worn a full face shield in his last three appearances.
The attachment has hampered him.
“Peripheral vision, kind of blocks below at my feet,” Cozens said of his problems with it. “It’s hot and tough to talk. It (stinks).”
Granato said Cozens “did play much better” against the Bruins.
“He looks like he’s getting more acclimated to that facial shield that kind of cuts your peripheral down low,” he said. “You’ve got to tip your head, hold your head a little different just to find the puck. That’s a big adjustment. I thought he’s come through that much, much better. He looks better even in practice in that regard.
“He’s a guy that put a lot of pressure on himself early in the year. He’s finally starting to just breathe a little bit.”