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Lighter Lehner out to pull his weight with Sabres

Robin Lehner knows he might be the key to the season. He’s aware some people don’t think he has what it takes. He’s heard the whispers that he was too out of shape to stay healthy in net.

None of those things have changed him inside. Outside, the Buffalo Sabres goaltender is an entirely different person.

“I didn’t recognize him when he first came in,” defenseman Josh Gorges said. “You do the old double take.”

The second look reveals a stunning transformation. The formerly hefty goaltender is a svelte fighting machine who dropped 20 (30? 40?) pounds through a summer of mixed martial arts training that has him ready to punch the Sabres’ playoff ticket.

“I’ve got to go out and perform,” Lehner said. “That’s what I expect out of myself. That’s what I expect out of my teammates. That’s what they expect out of me. It’s a result-based game, and we’ve got to go out and perform this year.”

Lehner is a no-nonsense guy on the ice, so he wanted to eliminate any distractions when he heads to the crease. Therefore, the extra weight is gone. No one will to be able to say he wasn’t prepared to stop pucks, remain healthy or be Buffalo’s No. 1 guy.

“I just take a lot of question marks out of my game,” he said. “No one can blame something on that.”

Lehner wasn’t in the best shape when last season began, nor could he be. A February concussion robbed him of five months of his life. He started his Buffalo career listed at 245 pounds, and he also had a lot weighing on his mind.

“Going back to that concussion, that concussion that rocked everything, it does a lot to your mind,” he said. “I’m usually a calm and confident guy, but that concussion does a lot to you. Going away from that now for quite some time, I’m just excited to be healthy and to be ready to go.”

With his mind back, the 6-foot-4 goalie went to work on his body.

“I’ve played very good periods of times with the heavy weight and light weight,” he said. “I was pretty heavy when I won the Calder Cup” with Binghamton in 2011. “I just think consistency-wise and playing as many games as I can this season and perform every day, this is a good thing. I do feel a lot faster out there. We’ll see where it goes.”

While it remains to be seen where it goes on the ice, his weight loss certainly made a statement in the dressing room.

“He’s made a huge commitment to be at his best and be better both physically and mentally this year in the net,” coach Dan Bylsma said Saturday.

“He looks like a new guy,” defenseman Jake McCabe said in HarborCenter. “You can just tell when he’s around he’s just really driven and focused and dialed in. He wants to win so bad and prove to everyone that he’s a really good goaltender, which he is.”

Though Lehner didn’t play often during his first season with the Sabres because of ankle injuries, he played well. His .924 save percentage in 21 games would have ranked sixth in the NHL had he appeared enough to qualify.

“I know I’m a good goaltender,” Lehner said. “I’m just excited for the opportunity for the season, just going and do my best.

“I know what I can do. I’m not eager to prove anyone wrong or right. Me and the people that are around me and close to me, we know what I can do. I don’t have any need to prove it to anyone else.”

Lehner may not feel the need to prove anything, but he knows people want him to prove something. He’s never played more 36 games in an NHL season, and it’s time for the 25-year-old to establish himself as a workhorse. He’s also entering a contract year and will be a restricted free agent after the season.

“There’s a lot of pressure on me, and that’s fine,” Lehner said. “It’s a big year for me personally, but I think it’s another big year for our team. It’s a season where we can start putting our mark in and do everything we can to try and make the playoffs and take our first step.

“I expect us all to step up a few more steps, every single one of us in the locker room. I’ve got to have a good year. Every single one of us has got to be better than last year because obviously we’re not happy with where we ended up. It’s a team game. We need something from everyone.”

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