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Mike Harrington: It's time for Sabres to go with the hot hand in net

The Buffalo Sabres don't have a goaltending controversy. At least not yet.

The thought gives off a negative connotation, and that wouldn't be fair given how well Robin Lehner and Anders Nilsson have played most of the season in the face of an offense that was completely inept over the season's first 21 games without Jack Eichel.

What the Sabres do have, however, is a brewing dilemma. And it grows with each win Nilsson piles up and each loss to Lehner adds to his total. The team was off Wednesday and that provided plenty of time to study the net numbers. They're pretty interesting, to say the least.

After making 34 saves in Tuesday's 4-3 overtime win over Edmonton, Nilsson is 5-2-2 on the season with a 2.38 goals-against average and .932 save percentage. He is 5-1-1 in his last seven decisions.

Lehner, meanwhile, lost in OT Monday at Washington to drop his record to 5-8-4. But his other numbers (2.41/.921) remain solid. What isn't is the fact he is just 1-5-3 in his last nine decisions.

Lehner has started 18 of the Sabres' 26 games while Nilsson has started just eight. It seems like it's time to reverse that trend and go with the hot hand for a while.

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ROBIN LEHNER
                W-L-O  GAA Sv%
Overall     5-8-4     2.41 .921
Home       1-4-2     2.26 .923
Road        4-4-2     2.51 .920
October    2-2-1     2.61 .913
November 3-5-2   2.30 .924
December 0-1-1     2.48 .924

ANDERS NILSSON
                  W-L-O GAA Sv%
Overall       5-2-2    2.38 .932
Home          4-1-1    1.97 .942
Road            1-1-1    3.27 .912
October       1-1-1    1.95 .937
November   2-1-1    2.39 .940
December    2-0-0  3.00 .903

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The goaltending has been a bright spot in a trying season to date. The Sabres are fourth in the NHL in save percentage among their goalies at .923 and ninth in GAA (2.46). At even strength, their save percentage is .939, fifth in the league.

But get this: Among goalies that have played at least eight games, Nilsson leads the NHL in even-strength save percentage at .957. Lehner is tied for 22nd (.924). Nilsson's .932 overall figure is fifth, behind only big names like Minnesota's Devan Dubnyk, Detroit's Jimmy Howard, Montreal's Carey Price and Boston's Tuukka Rask. Lehner is 19th.

Then there's the matter of shootouts. Lehner has lost both of his this year -- and hasn't made a save in four shooters. Nilsson is 1-1 in the skills competition. But career-wise, there's a huge difference between the two. Lehner is 7-13 with a .562 save percentage while Nilsson is 7-1, .773

The Sabres, of course, need every win they can get if they harbor hopes of climbing back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture. It's a tough road when you consider they're 5-2-2 in their last nine games -- and have picked up only two points in the wild-card race in that span.

Clearly complicating matters is the background of the two goalies. Lehner was the hand-picked choice of General Manager Tim Murray, who scouted and drafted the him for the Ottawa Senators and dealt a first-round draft choice to his former organization to reunite with Lehner in 2015 on the morning of Eichel's draft in Sunrise, Fla.

Nilsson was a summer pickup from St. Louis for a fifth-round pick who was traded from Edmonton to the Blues during last season. He's a career .906 goalie clearly brought in to be the backup after the Sabres didn't re-sign Chad Johnson and were jilted by Jeff Zatkoff, who left Pittsburgh and changed his mind about Buffalo and opted to go to Los Angeles.

The Sabres are certainly trying to justify the trade of a first-round pick by giving Lehner the bulk of the work. That shouldn't be their motivation. Calgary has mostly benched Brian Elliott in favor of Johnson on the basis of play on the ice. That should rule.

Lehner started the first four games of the season, when the schedule was light, and coach Dan Byslma has said he would likely make two of every three starts. The pattern has mostly held.

Bylsma has only gone back to back with Nilsson when he's been forced to, be it when Lehner was felled by the flu in October or took the Dec. 1 win over the New York Rangers off to rest his hip.

It seemed particularly egregious that Nilsson didn't get the next start in the wake of a 2-1 shootout win Nov. 19 against Pittsburgh after he made 46 saves in the game and then went 3 for 3 in the shootout -- against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Lehner got the next two games, beating Calgary and losing to Detroit in a shootout. Bad call.

Nilsson made big plays again Tuesday, including a save on Connor McDavid's short-handed breakaway in the third period with the game still tied. Those who study numbers in general and Nilsson's career in particular say a regression might be at hand, so the Sabres would be advised to take advantage of Nilsson's play now.

And Nilsson has been particularly good at home (4-1-1, 1.97/.942) while Lehner has struggled to win in KeyBank Center (1-4-2, 2.26, .923). Keep running him out there.

Nilsson, it should be noted, has benefited from lots of goal support since Eichel returned. The Sabres are averaging 2.22 goals per game in Nilsson's nine appearances but have scored 11 in his last three. They average 1.88 in Lehner's 18 games and have been held to two or fewer in 11 of the starter's last 12 outings, giving him little margin for error.

For his part, however, Nilsson has insisted since training camp he's much improved thanks to his work over the summer and his relationship with Buffalo goalie coach Andrew Allen. No one is expecting .932 out of him for an entire season but he may not regress like he did last December in Edmonton either before the trade to St. Louis.

The Sabres are supposed to be about winning now, right? That's what the emergency call-up of Brendan Guhle from junior was all about. In the short term, he gave them a better chance to win in the face of all their injuries on defense.

It's the same thing in goal. The Sabres have to figure out if Lehner is the long-term solution, particularly since his contract is up after this season. But for the short term, when they need to get on the fast track to stockpile points, Nilsson deserves more chances right now.

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