International Ice Hockey Federation

Ristolainen rocks

Ristolainen rocks

Finland’s 2014 WJC hero is hot again

Published 11.12.2015 17:13 GMT+2 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Ristolainen rocks
Defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen scored Finland's OT winner at the 2014 World Juniors, and is emerging as a star with the Buffalo Sabres. Photo: Francois Laplante / HHOF-IIHF Images
In 2001, the Finnish rock band The Rasmus got its first #1 hit with “F-F-F-Falling.” In 2015, Rasmus Ristolainen is rising up with the Buffalo Sabres.

The third-year NHL defenceman from Turku struggled last season with a -32 plus-minus rating, sixth-worst in the league. This year, at age 21, he’s been a big hit. He’s handling an average of more than 24 minutes a night with greater confidence. He's already achieved single-season bests in assists (14) and points (21), playing a solid two-way game for new Sabres coach Dan Bylsma.

Ristolainen's biggest individual performance so far this year came with a rare natural hat trick in a 4-3 road loss to Calgary on Thursday.

“I had a good summer,” Ristolainen told “I worked hard. I think I’m a better player than I was last year. Especially, my defensive game has been good so far. I’m just trying to get better every day.”

Being paired with stalwart, stay-at-home veteran Josh Gorges has paid dividends. It enables Ristolainen, who idolized Shea Weber as a kid, to jump up in the play and exploit his heavy shot.

“I like it,” Ristolainen said. “We’ve played all the games together so far. We have some good chemistry, and hopefully we can keep it going.”

Buffalo acquired some significant talent in the off-season. Marquee additions include American phenom Jack Eichel, drafted second overall in June, and former Lady Byng Trophy winner and 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship winner Ryan O’Reilly. Yet the Sabres are still a long shot to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

“We’ve got to work hard every game,” Ristolainen said. “We don’t have players who are going to turn the game around in one shift. So everyone has to support one another. We’ve got to do this together.”

Ristolainen, the eighth overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, grabbed the international spotlight two years ago in the World Junior final in Malmo, Sweden. He got the dramatic 3-2 overtime winner against the favoured Swedes, busting to the net with a breath-taking combination of muscle and finesse and beating goalie Oscar Dansk with an in-tight backhand.

Then-U20 head coach Karri Kivi deserves a ton of credit, according to Ristolainen: “I think he knew pretty well what kind of roster we had. He put guys in the right spots. He got everyone working together. We worked really hard and we were a team.”

It was Finland’s first gold since winning on home ice in 1998, and just its third of all time. The first one came in Czechoslovakia in 1987.

What does scoring an historic goal mean to this quintessentially modest Finn? Ristolainen simply said: “I have some good memories from that tournament two years ago. So far, it was one of the better moments in my life.”

Buffalo is in line for a big moment of its own. On 4th December, USA Hockey announced that the Western New York city will host the 2018 World Juniors. It’s the second time Buffalo has enjoyed this honour. Russia won the 2011 tournament there with a thrilling 5-3 comeback victory over Canada.

While Ristolainen is excited for his adopted city, he’s eager to see what the 2016 tournament in Helsinki will bring. Is another kid in blue and white ready to reprise his heroics from Malmo? Hot forward prospects like Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine have raised hopes of a home-ice triumph.

“It’s going to be huge,” the 193-cm, 94-kg blueliner said. “Every year it’s getting bigger, especially in Finland. This year Finland has a really good team. I’m sure there will be a lot of fans at the games. I wish them all the best.”

Looking down the road, Ristolainen is adamant that he’d love to play for Finland at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, Korea. It’s no wonder after witnessing the Finns’ gritty bronze medal run in Sochi, where they stunned host Russia 3-1 in the quarter-finals and then blanked the Americans 5-0 in the third-place game.

“I’ve never been there, but hopefully I’ll make it one day. It’s always nice to put the Finnish jersey on. I hope NHL players are going there.”

He might be too old to play in the World Juniors this year, but you’re never too old for a visit from your mother. Since the Sabres have a week between hosting Chicago on 19th December and visiting Boston on 26th December, that’s what Ristolainen is anticipating: “My mom is coming to Buffalo. I’m going to do something with her. I hope she’s going to bring some Finnish Christmas food.”

Fuelling up on Christmas ham and pickled herring should fortify him for the long road ahead with the Sabres. The franchise has cracked two Stanley Cup finals, but lost both times, in 1975 to Philadelphia and in 1999 to Buffalo. This young group is still growing toward contender status.

“It’s never been easy here so far,” Ristolainen said. “There were a couple of tough years with a lot of losses. For sure, it’s been mentally tough. Now I know more about what it takes, and appreciate it more when we get a win.”

If the Sabres ever go all the way, you can be pretty sure that in Buffalo, Rasmus Ristolainen will be known as “The Rasmus”.


Back to Overview