SUNRISE, FLA. – Finding four teenage hockey players skating together on a Friday night in Buffalo isn’t uncommon, especially if you spend any time at Holiday Twin Rinks or the Northtown Center. So when the Buffalo Sabres iced a lineup featuring a quartet of fresh-faced teens in an NHL game played in the center of the geriatric universe, they forced league historians to rewrite their record books.
When they dressed teenagers Mikhail Grigorenko (19), Zemgus Girgensons (19), Nikita Zadorov (18) and Rasmus Ristolainen (18), the Sabres became the first team in almost 18 years to play four teenagers in the same game. You have to go all the way back to March 10, 1996, when the original Winnipeg Jets lost 5-2 to Detroit with a roster that featured four teens named Shane Doan, Oleg Tverdovsy, Deron Quint and Chad Kilger.
Buffalo’s quartet of teens teamed up for a different result, as the Sabres defeated Florida 3-1 for just their second win of the season, and second in a row on the road. Steve Ott scored the game winner at 12:42 of the third, and Jhonas Enroth was stellar in net making 44 saves to earn the victory. Ristolainen opened the scoring with his first career goal, and Cody Hodgson bookended it for Buffalo with an empty netter with 47 seconds left in the game.
The icy-cool Ristolainen scored his first career goal at 13:32 of the second period to even the score at 1-1, converting a play that has become his trademark early on. Ristolainen, who will turn 19 on Sunday, took a pass at the right point from Thomas Vanek, easily stepped around a defender and floated a perfectly-placed wrist shot through a Cody McCormick screen past goaltender Jacob Markstrom.
It was the second game in a row that one of Buffalo’s teen blueliners entered the Sabres’ record book, following up Zadorov’s first goal on Wednesday against Boston. Ristolainen, who will celebrate his 19th birthday on Sunday, is now the 295th player in franchise history to score a goal in a Sabres uniform.
Head coach Ron Rolston lauded the performance of his teenagers, especially the offensive contributions from defensemen Ristolainen and Zadorov.
“Risto has a nice shot; he’s got a good shot from the point. (Cody) McCormick paid the price in front, and he was able to get it through, find its way,” Rolston said. “I know Big Z had a couple of opportunities from the point too. That was the difference tonight, as our offensive blueline work was better.”
It’s no secret the negatives have far outweighed the positives so far this season for the Sabres. However, on nights like this, it’s easy to see what the future holds for the franchise.
“We talk about it that we pretty much have eight guys in the lineup who are learning how to play hockey and develop at the NHL level. And they’ve done a good job,” Rolston said. “Again, they’re going to make mistakes, but it’s part of the process that we’re in. I like where our young guys are now, where they’re going and where we’re headed.”
In many ways, Friday’s game could probably have been labeled as #BlueprintPersonified for both teams. The Sabres and Panthers are almost mirror images of each other when it comes to the talent in their respective pipelines.
Of the 20 players that Buffalo dressed, nine were born in 1990 or later. The Panthers countered with six players who will never truly know what an ‘80’s hair band’ is.
Rookie Aleksander Barkov was the only teenager in the Panthers lineup, having just turned 18 on September 2. The 6-foot-3 center was the second overall pick in this June’s Entry Draft, and already has seven points in his first 11 games. Along with last year’s Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau (20), Florida is forming a formidable young duo up front like the Sabres hope they have in Grigorenko and Girgensons.
Grigorenko has struggled with the pro game at times, but there were moments on Friday that saw his confidence start to bubble to the surface. He was moved away from his normal center role at times, starting the night on the right side with Steve Ott and Marcus Foligno. But long after his linemates had left the ice, Grigorenko remained out for a whopping first shift of 1:48.
The conditioning that has been called into question wasn’t an issue, as Grigorenko played both ends of the ice with zest and aggression throughout the extended shift. He was held off the scoresheet, but Grigorenko was instrumental in creating the play that resulted in Ott’s third period game-winner. Grigorenko’s 16:23 of ice time was his season high, and second only to the 17:10 he played last season in Washington on January 27.
“We just wanted to get him some minutes. He played the right, we played him a little bit up the middle, just trying to get him some extra minutes,” Rolston said. “I liked what he did. He was moving his feet, I thought he was physical at times. He did some good things out there. It was something to build on.”
Piling up points likely won’t be Girgensons’ calling card in years to come, but expect him to leave a trail of crumpled bodies along the boards of arenas around the league. Girgensons has the typical power forward mentality: go hard to the net and knock down anything that gets in his way. Dmitry Kulikov found that out very early in the night, as the burly defenseman was stapled to the boards by a Girgensons check. Latvia’s highest drafted NHL’er spent most of his night on a line with Johan Larsson and Tyler Ennis, recording two shots on goal and three hits in a career-high 19:16 of action.
Just three games into his NHL career, Zadorov has displayed an offensive knack and physical prowess that many scouts talked about leading into the 2013 Entry Draft. Whether it’s in front of the net or along the boards, opposing forwards have quickly found out that it will be difficult to stay out of Zadorov’s crosshairs. Zadorov rattled the BB&T Center glass numerous times on Friday, including a thunderous blast of Barkov that left the sturdy Finn shaking his head as he struggled to his feet. Zadorov finished with a game-high seven hits, giving him 14 in his first three games.
Zadorov played just over 20 minutes of ice time on the night, and was paired with Tyler Myers for several crucial shifts as time ticked down. He forced a pair of Panthers turnovers after Buffalo had taken the lead, with the most important coming late in the third when he leveled Marcel Goc as he was cutting towards the slot.
The Sabres lost Mike Weber with an upper body injury after the second period, and Rolston said afterwards that Weber is expected to miss some time.