Mike Harrington: Lehner has claimed the crease - The Buffalo News

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Mike Harrington: Lehner has claimed the crease

Robin Lehner insists he doesn't care about the numbers but the ones he's putting up are eye-popping. He's a lot more interested in feeling good in the goal crease and helping his team collect victories.

He's getting the job done there as well.

The Buffalo Sabres' net has been wide open for the taking since that bizarre night nearly three years ago when Ryan Miller was shipped to St. Louis just a few days in front of the NHL trade deadline. Lehner, the hand-picked choice of General Manager Tim Murray the morning of the 2015 draft in Florida, is rewarding the GM's massive leap of faith.

You don't give up a first-round pick for a goalie unless you get a stud. While Murray's deal with his old team in Ottawa looked like a massive overpay as Lehner struggled with injuries last season, it's tipping much more toward the Sabres this year.

That's because Lehner has become a leader in the dressing room and a go-to figure on the ice. The Sabres haven't had that from a goalie since Miller left. You generally don't go to the playoffs without it.

"I just want to play and I want to play with this hockey club," Lehner said after piling up 37 more saves in Saturday's 3-2 win over St. Louis. "This is what you've been practicing your whole life to be -- to be a starting goalie and to play lots of games. I think I've been playing well all season but it's a team game and it's been clicking for us lately."

Lehner is 17-16-6 this season, a mediocre record borne mostly from his lack of goal support in the first half. But he's got a 2.47 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage that ranks tied for third among NHL starters. Only Minnesota's Devan Dubnyk (.933) and Pittsburgh's Matt Murray (.927) are better.

Among goalies who have started at least 50 games over the last two years, who has the highest figure? Yep, it's Lehner at .926. Going into Saturday, he was ahead of big names like Dubnyk and Braden Holtby (both .924), as well as Corey Crawford, Carey Price and Ben Bishop (all .921).

"He's been our most consistent player and our best player," said center Ryan O'Reilly. "He's making huge saves when things aren't going well. Once we do get a lead, he's shutting the door. We're all glad to have that but we have to help him out even more."

There's still 23 games to go for the final analysis to come into focus but it sure looks like a seminal moment to this season came last Sunday night, when Lehner called out his team in the wake of their disjointed loss to Vancouver here.

Since then, the Sabres have won three straight in regulation for the first time since November and Lehner has stopped 99 of 103 shots.

"It's small, minor details that have been hurting us," Lehner said. "There's not many times this year I could complain about our effort. The effort has been there but it's the details and slowly but surely, we're starting to put them together."

Lehner unloads following Sabres' 4-2 loss to Canucks

Saturday was Lehner's 41st game of the season, breaking his previous professional career high of 40 set in Binghamton in 2011-12. When he gets to 50 games, Lehner will become the first Buffalo netminder to reach that mark since Miller played 61 in that same '11-12 season.

Want some more numbers? Try these:

---In Lehner's 17 wins this season, he has a 1.76 goals-against average and .950 save percentage.

---In nine games in February, Lehner is 5-3-1, 1.89/.950

---Against the Central Division, it's almost like he's as unbeatable as he is playing Ottawa: Lehner is 7-1, 1.87/.943.

There's a good omen for Sunday night against a Chicago team that's beaten the Sabres 10 straight times. The Sabres had dropped nine in a row against St. Louis but ended that slide Saturday, and the Blackhawks will be coming from home after hosting Edmonton on Saturday night.

Lehner has been strong early in games -- think the stop on Nikita Zadorov in the first 20 seconds of Thursday's shutout of Colorado -- and he stood tall late Saturday with a stop on Patrik Berglund with the Blues pushing for the tying goal and Jake Allen on the bench. His best stop might have been in the first few seconds of the middle period, when he stymied Jori Lehtera to keep the game even at 1-1.

Coach Dan Bylsma said Friday this team is going to ride Lehner going forward but it's really already happened. Saturday's start was his sixth straight and 10th in the last 11 games. It's going to be seven in a row and 11 of 12 against Chicago.

"You see he's more comfortable now and he's trusting himself," O'Reilly said. "We see it. Calm goalies staying even keel making the right saves back there. When a guy can do that like he has been, it's nice to have on your side for sure."

The Sabres are 26-23-10 and, believe it or not, this is the first time they've had three more wins than regulation losses since the final day of the 2011-12 season. That's when they ended the first non-playoff year of their current drought at 39-32-11. They could go into their bye with four straight wins, a legitimate factor in a playoff hunt for the first time in five years.

On the bigger picture is what to do about Lehner going forward. He's a restricted free agent. You know the Sabres will bring him back. The way he's been playing, it's simply going to be a question of dollars and term. He's proving he's their guy, one game and more bushel full of saves at a time.

"It's a team game," Lehner said. "I felt like I've let things come to me, read the plays well and stayed in the middle of the net. Sometimes you have bounces, sometimes you're not getting them. But I've felt good all year."

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