BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — A funny thing happened when the offensively challenged Sabres left town for two weeks to make way for the world junior hockey championship.
Buffalo’s win-starved hockey fans got a promising glimpse into the future thanks to Casey Mittelstadt. The 19-year-old forward from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, earned tournament MVP honors while keying the United States’ run to a bronze medal.
“You have to find hope and positive energy from a performance such as Casey’s,” Sabres general manager Jason Botterill told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
“With it being here in Buffalo, there was that added pressure,” Botterill added. “And I think you saw a player who instead of succumbing to the pressure, actually thriving in that type of environment.”
Mittelstadt, selected by the Sabres with the eighth pick in last year’s draft, finished tied for the tournament lead with 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in seven games. And the University of Minnesota freshman punctuated his visit by scoring a highlight-reel goal in a 3-2 preliminary-round loss to Slovakia.
With Team USA trailing 2-1, Mittelstadt stripped the puck from Marian Studenic at the Slovakia blue line and circled back into the zone. Mittelstadt kicked the puck between his legs to avoid a check by defender Michal Ivan and didn’t break stride in cutting across the top of the crease and avoiding goalie Roman Durny. He swept a shot into the open left side with 3:11 remaining.
That was nothing, said U.S. captain Joey Anderson, who grew up playing with Mittelstadt.
“He’s got a whole arsenal of fun stuff to watch,” Anderson said. “When we were younger, he’d pull stuff out of his hat that were awesome moves.”
Botterill laughed when asked how many times he replayed the goal.
“What I was really impressed about that goal was certainly it was a beautiful, beautiful hockey play, but it was the timing of it,” Botterill said. “Here was a scenario where he was trying to give his team a spark in a crucial situation. I think that’s certainly what we need here in Buffalo.”
Ah yes, the Sabres, a team mired in last place in the Eastern Conference standings and in jeopardy of extending its franchise-worst playoff drought to seven seasons. Buffalo has a league-worst 92 goals, scoring one or fewer goals 14 times, including five shutouts.
Botterill thinks it will still be some time before Mittelstadt lines up alongside Buffalo’s current U.S star, Jack Eichel.
Botterill wants Mittelstadt to continue developing at the college level and will wait until Minnesota’s season ends before meeting the player to discuss his future, including the potential of signing an NHL contract.
Mittelstadt said the thought of one day playing in the Sabres’ home arena as an NHLer crossed his mind, though he was more focused on the tournament and then getting back to Minnesota. Two days after the U.S. beat the Czech Republic 9-3 in the bronze-medal game, Mittelstadt was back on the ice for the Golden Gophers in a 2-0 win over top-ranked St. Cloud State.