SUNRISE, Fla. – Rasmus Ristolainen walked out of the arena with a souvenir. Jhonas Enroth should have left with all his teammates’ paychecks.
He’s the only reason the Sabres departed with a victory.
Enroth made 44 saves to prevent Florida from running away with the game Friday, and Buffalo eventually took advantage of the stellar goaltending. Ristolainen scored his first NHL goal in the second period to make it 1-1, Steve Ott scored the game-winner with 7:18 left and Cody Hodgson sealed the Sabres’ 3-1 victory with an empty-net tally in the final minute.
Buffalo moved to 2-9-1 with its first regulation win of the season. If Enroth hadn’t kept it close, the Sabres wouldn’t have had a chance.
“Jhonas was phenomenal,” Ott said. “If it wasn’t for what he did out there, we had no business being in the game. It could have went the other way in a hurry. He gave us a chance.”
They have a chance for a Sunshine State sweep tonight in Tampa Bay against the Lightning.
“It’s a win, and we’re desperate for those right now,” Ott said. “But we’ve got a lot to work on. We pulled it out, which was nice, but we can’t give up 45 shots.”
They can only if they get perfect goaltending, which is what Enroth felt he provided. The only goal came in the first period when Jesse Winchester drove to the net during a three-on-two rush and tapped home an airborne pass from Sean Bergenheim.
“I was very focused all night,” Enroth said. “It was a perfect game. That goal they scored was 1 in 100, I think, so it was a really good game for myself.”
Enroth improved to 1-2-1 with a 2.24 goals-against average and .932 save percentage.
“This is a little bit special feeling winning the game instead of losing again when you play good,” he said. “This is why we play, to win games.”
The Sabres’ plan to go with youth was historically evident against the Panthers in BB&T Center. They used four teenagers – 19-year-olds Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons, and 18-year-olds Nikita Zadorov and Ristolainen – and it was the first time a team dressed that many for a game since Winnipeg did it March 10, 1996.
For the second game in a row, one of the rookies achieved a milestone.
Ristolainen scored with 6:28 left in the second, pulling the Sabres into an undeserved 1-1 tie. The defenseman’s wrist shot from the right point slipped through the net-front traffic caused by teammate Cody McCormick and Florida defenseman Erik Gudbranson and got by goalie Jacob Markstrom.
Zadorov scored his first NHL goal Wednesday against Boston.
“It feels great,” Ristolainen said. “It was a significant goal for us. We tied the game. The guys were good in front of the net, so the goalie didn’t see anything.”
Ott got a piece of the puck to give the Sabres their second lead of the season. Christian Ehrhoff took a shot from the point, and Markstrom had no chance as Ott jumped to make contact before tumbling to the ice with 7:18 left in the third.
Until then, the Sabres had led just 9:35 of the opening 11-plus games.
“Usually, we give up a goal with a couple minutes left,” Enroth said. “That’s huge for us, and hopefully we can start building on that.”
The finish took the focus away from the start. The Panthers dominated the shots with an 18-4 lead after one period (the Sabres have been outshot, 166-87, during first periods this season), and Florida became the 11th team in 12 games to put Buffalo in a 1-0 hole.
Sabres coach Ron Rolston spent most of the night juggling his lines in an attempt to find something that worked. He made an interesting switch at the beginning of the game, starting Grigorenko at right wing alongside Ott and center Marcus Foligno. Grigorenko ended up back at his center spot while playing 16:23, the second-highest total of his career. He had one shot.
“We just want to get him some minutes,” Rolston said. “He did some good things out there. It’s something to build on.”