Robin Lehner will take the win, especially after a couple of rough outings, but the Buffalo goaltender is a demanding guy. He knows the Sabres didn’t play their best Sunday. He’s going to push them until they do.
Lehner made 34 saves during a 4-1 victory over Colorado, including 11 during the first period to help his team build a 3-0 lead. He kept them in front with stellar point-blank stops – too many for his liking.
“It was nice to get it turned around here, get back on the winning side and play well,” Lehner said in First Niagara Center. “We played hard. I still think there’s things in our defensive zone we’ve got to work on.
“We’ve got to try to limit the odd-man rushes against a lot. There’s a little bit too many of those the last little stretch we’ve had. It catches up to you, so it’s something we need to work on, but it’s nice all in all.”
In addition to his first-period perfection, Lehner stopped 10 of 11 pucks during the second period and all 13 in the third as Colorado outshot the Sabres, 35-21. He’d allowed nine goals on 40 shots during his previous two starts and had no intention of letting the skid continue.
“They had some shifts when we were under siege, and he had to come up big numerous times and come up strong,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “He was directing traffic there and on the bench. He just gives you the confidence he’s not going to give one up.”
The game was a contrast in netminding as Avalanche starter Semyon Varlamov got yanked after allowing two goals on two shots in the opening 4:42. Lehner kept the lead intact by stopping Nathan MacKinnon from the bottom of the left circle midway through the first. He added second-period stops on Jarome Iginla, John Mitchell and Gabriel Landeskog as the Avs tried to rally.
Though Lehner needed to make just one save during a late five-on-three penalty kill, his earlier efforts gave Buffalo the confidence that it could successfully get through the two-minute disadvantage.
“He stood on his head again and was the key to the penalty kill,” center Ryan O’Reilly said. “With Lenny back there playing like that, we have the confidence that if we take away the one-timers, take away the dangerous plays, we know he’s going to make the save.”
Lehner, in a continuation of his demanding ways, didn’t bask in penalty-kill glory.
“We played desperate there,” he said. “We fought well. I also think they missed the net about six times. They helped us out a little bit. It was nice to be able to get through that and come out with a win.”
The folks in First Niagara Center haven’t had much to cheer about this season, so they relished the chance to applaud the penalty killers. When the five-on-three ended with 4:22 to play, the sellout crowd of 19,070 erupted, with many rising to their feet for a partial standing ovation.
They clapped again at the end as Buffalo won its second straight home game. The Sabres have had just three winning streaks downtown after putting together two straight victories in October and three in December.
“It’s been a tough stretch here this year with our home record, and it’s unacceptable,” defenseman Jake McCabe said. “It’s nice to get a couple wins for the home fans.”
Former Sabres forward Mikhail Grigorenko reached the score sheet during his return to Buffalo, setting up Erik Johnson for a tap-in with a pass across the crease. Grigorenko skated 19:16, third among Avs forwards behind MacKinnon and Matt Duchene, and had 6:02 of power-play time.
“It was nice to come back in this building,” Grigorenko said. “I have a lot of good memories. I was really excited. I wish we would have won that game, but it was good.”
Buffalo rookie Justin Bailey tied for the team lead with three shots and blocked one in 11:06 of playing time. … Rasmus Ristolainen led the Sabres with three blocked shots and tied for the team high with O’Reilly and Josh Gorges at plus-3. … O’Reilly won 71 percent of his faceoffs against his former team, going 17-7. … Zemgus Girgensons played 14:16 after missing three games with injury. He went 1 for 8 on faceoffs and took a four-minute high-sticking penalty.
Bylsma worked with Mike Yeo for four years in the Pittsburgh organization, including two alongside each other on the Penguins’ bench. The Sabres coach was disappointed to see Yeo fired by Minnesota on Saturday night after the Wild lost for the 13th time in 14 games.
“It’s a good coach, and it’s disappointing to see him get let go,” Bylsma said. “I know his team is in a bit of a backward movement in the standings. When we saw them, they were eight points in a comfortable spot in the playoffs. Their last 20 games have been in the opposite direction.
“It’s times like that, that’s when you get the news. Sometimes you expect it when you’re in the kind of slide they’re in, and unfortunately for Mike he got let go.”