After one of, arguably, the worst starts to a season in franchise history, the Buffalo Sabres have started to turn the corner in the second half of the 2020-21 campaign.
In the first half of the 56-game season this year in Buffalo, the Sabres finished with just a 6-18-4 record before head coach Ralph Krueger was relieved of his duties. Over the course of the past 18 games under the tutelage of Don Granato, the Sabres have gone 6-9-3 and are playing much more inspired than from the first 28 games of the season.
Part of the reason why the Sabres have played better in this recent stretch of games has been the contributions from the younger players on the roster. Granato's main message from that start has been to let his players play more freely, and not being afraid to make a mistake when they take the ice for a shift.
That new mentality has allowed players like Tage Thompson, Rasmus Asplund, Rasmus Dahlin, Henri Jokiharju and others to flourish in their environment, playing with more spark and confidence in their game.
Perhaps the player who has taken off the most since Granato's takeover of the team back on March 17 is forward Casey Mittelstadt.
The 22-year-old has completely turned his game around with seven goals and three assists for 10 points in his last 18 games. Mittelstadt is also showing promise again as a center in the NHL, winning 48.5% of his faceoffs this season, including 51.8% of the faceoffs he's taken in the offensive zone.
Mittelstadt has flourished playing on a regular line with Thompson and Asplund, averaging 16:38 of ice-time over his past 18 games. This included a season-high 20:41 of total ice-time on Tuesday night in a 2-0 loss to the Boston Bruins at KeyBank Center. That total also led all forwards for the game.
Just ahead of the Sabres' second game of a three-game set with the Bruins on Thursday night in Downtown Buffalo, Mittelstadt took some time to join Howard Simon and Jeremy White on WGR. He talked about his team's turnaround this season under Granato, the uptick his game personally and more.
Here is some of what he had to say:
Mittelstadt on the young players making an impact on the NHL roster:
"We're having fun. We're in a spot where we don't want to be, but I think the young guys all getting a chance to play and getting a chance to have some fun. We've all done it together in Rochester [Americans], for the most part minus a couple of guys. It's fun. Obviously we have some chemistry with each other, and we just try to make plays and play the right way."
Mittelstadt on how the team has turned things around this season:
"I think guys are just playing looser; making the plays with the puck, making plays coming out of our zone and not playing scared to make a mistake. I think if you mess up or turn the puck over, then just know you have to backcheck and your linemates will do the same. I feel like some of those mistakes can be fixed with hard work, and we've done a good job with that. If we want to keep making plays and keep playing that way, then the hard work is going to have to continue."
Mittelstadt on his play over the course of the 2020-21 season:
"It's been my best stretch as a pro hockey player, for sure. I think it just goes with just not being afraid to make a mistake. Obviously you see the play, you make it, and you know if you mess up, you just get back and you're going to get out there the next shift and have another chance to make the play. For me, it's just go out and play, I guess. I know that sounds simple, but just go have fun, and playing with 'Aspie' [Asplund] and 'Tommer' [Thompson] too; I've played with them a lot in [Rochester] and 'Tommer' all-around. It's been fun, and it's been good for us."
Mittelstadt on his progression from his rookie season to now:
"It's crazy how much of a difference a few years can make. Obviously just getting the puck, looking up and all-of-the-sudden you feel like you have more time than you feel you've had in the past. That's definitely a thing, and it helps when you feel that way and you get to make better plays."
You can listen to the entire interview below: