This wasn’t the season Casey Mittelstadt envisioned when the Sabers center’s first shift began with a faceoff against the Canadiens’ Nick Suzuki in KeyBank Center on Oct. 14.
Mittelstadt, 23, missed 42 of the Sabers’ first 49 games because of an upper-body injury that required surgery and an arduous recovery. He’s been back in the club’s lineup for the past 31 games, but his return to form has been a slow build.
“We’re not seeing the true Casey Mittelstadt; we’re seeing him push through the ripple effect of a long injury, and I think he’s doing a spectacular job in that,” said coach Don Granato.
Over the past month, we’ve seen the subtleties in Mittelstadt’s game that were apparent when he was unquestionably the Sabers’ top player during training camp in the fall. He’s holding onto the puck longer to allow plays to develop, breaking pressure on the power play with a well-placed pass, extending possessions by winning battles on the forecheck and aggressively attacking in the offensive zone.
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Most recently, Mittelstadt used his left-handed shot to score his fifth goal in 38 games this season. Skating down the right wing on a 2-on-1, Mittelstadt waited for Islanders defenseman Sebastian Aho to take away the cross-slot pass. Mittelstadt then beat goalie Ilya Sorokin with a low shot to the far post for the Sabers’ opening goal of a 5-3 win Saturday.
“I mean, I think it’s taught me some patience,” said Mittelstadt. “I think that’s probably one of the things I struggled with most. … I think the biggest positive for me is it’s going to give me some motivation going into this summer to get right and get ready for next year.”
It was only one year ago that Mittelstadt was one of the Sabers’ brightest success stories following the firing of former coach Ralph Krueger. Mittelstadt, who was drafted eighth overall by Buffalo in 2017, had nine goals and 17 points in the final 22 games of the season.
The breakout, albeit in a short stretch of games, was a significant development for the Sabers because their depth at center was uncertain. The position is now a strength for the organization with Mittelstadt, Tage Thompson, Dylan Cozens and Peyton Krebs.
Over the past 18 games, Mittelstadt has three goals and 12 points while shifting between center and left wing. For the season, he has averaged a career-high 16:04 of ice time. He’s back on the top power-play unit – the Sabers rank first in the NHL on the man advantage since March 27 – and receiving top-six minutes.
“As far as his level of where he feels he’s at, I don’t want to speak for him, but I do know that he’s going to be a special player for us and he’s doing the right things, right now to get to that level sooner than later,” Granato said.
The long offseason will provide Mittelstadt with time to recover and strengthen his game. He has all the on- and off-ice intangibles to be a consistent difference-maker for the Sabers entering the next phase of their rebuild.
But first, Mittelstadt will help the Sabers try to win their final two games of the season, beginning Thursday night in Boston. A road game against the Bruins will bring difficult matchups for Buffalo’s young players, Mittelstadt included, and an opportunity to build on the club’s impressive run.
The Sabers’ .635 points percentage since March 1, a span of 26 games, ranked 11th in the NHL entering Tuesday. And even through a difficult injury, Mittelstadt has played a prominent role in that success.
“Obviously, it’s been a long year and a lot of time without skating and hockey,” he said. “But, yeah, it feels great, go out, have the puck, have some team success, I think caps it off. I think it’s been a fun last month.”
The Sabers’ attendance at practice Wednesday could reveal their goaltending plan for the final two games. Craig Anderson has been unavailable since Saturday with an undisclosed minor injury and was examined by doctors Tuesday.
Another practice absence could make it difficult for Anderson to get ready for game action. The Sabers’ final two games are a back-to-back, capped by the home matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday night. Buffalo will only have a morning skate Thursday in Boston.
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen will be needed for Rochester’s final game of the season Friday night against Utica. The Amerks will need help to qualify for the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Playoffs.
If Rochester loses in regulation, it will need Toronto to earn a maximum one of a possible six points over its final three games this week. If the Amerks lose to Utica in overtime, Toronto can’t get more than two points. And if the Amerks defeat Utica, Toronto cannot get more than three of its final six points.
The Sabers will wear their white jerseys to finish the season Friday night against Chicago. There will be a pregame happy hour, alumni appearances and giveaways at KeyBank Center as part of the club’s final sendoff. It will be Patrick Kane’s first game back in Buffalo since Feb. 1, 2019.