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Lehner wants Sabres to earn their playing time

Robin Lehner didn’t have an easy introduction to the NHL. During his first two seasons, the Ottawa Senators used eight goaltenders. A bad game meant a trip to the back of the line.

As Lehner looked back Friday, the system was for the best.

“If I played really, really well and lost the game, I was out,” the Sabres goaltender said. “I didn’t play again. If I wanted to play again, I needed to win and I needed to be outstanding. Then I got another game.

“We’ve got to get back to the accountability of performing on the ice.”

The Sabres have begun reflecting on their season as it reaches the final weekend. They visit Florida on Saturday and Tampa Bay on Sunday, then they’ll pack their gear and split.

When Buffalo returns to the ice in September, Lehner would like guys to earn their time.

“I remember coming into this league, either you performed or you didn’t,” he said in HarborCenter. “If you didn’t perform, you weren’t up here. It should go back to that. I hope it does.”

The Sabres certainly had their share of players who didn’t perform. It’s part of the reason they’ll miss the playoffs for the sixth straight season.

But injuries and lack of depth prohibited the organization from truly adopting a rewards-based system. Often, there wasn’t a healthy body to replace a struggling player. With the Rochester Americans sitting near the bottom of the American Hockey League, few players were pushing to get recalled and send someone to the bench.

The guys in Buffalo needed to push themselves to be better, and too many times they didn’t.

“We all have our assignments and jobs, and we have to buy into it,” Lehner said. “It was everyone this year not really seeing their roles. We’ve all got to buy into those roles.”

One player who consistently stuck to his role was defenseman Jake McCabe. He’s struggled lately, however, and was a healthy scratch for Wednesday’s 2-1 victory over Montreal. The 23-year-old was clearly angry over the benching.

But like Lehner, he understands performance should dictate play, even for a guy voted Unsung Hero by his teammates.

“It was a nice recognition,” McCabe said. “I just try to come to work every day. There’s a certain expectation of how I’m going to play and what my role is on this team. That’s what I try to bring every single day.

“On the flip side of that, I haven’t been bringing it so I’m not in the lineup.”

Coach Dan Bylsma wouldn’t say whether McCabe will return to the ice this weekend.

“He knew exactly the last couple games where he’s at and where he’s been playing at,” Bylsma said. “There’s no shying away from it.

“Jake’s a big part of our team. He’s a big part of our team going forward. He’s played that way this year, and we need him to step up and be a leader on this team. Getting the award is a sign of that.”

McCabe admits his confidence took a hit this week. He coughed up the puck for a goal by the New York Islanders on Sunday, and he did the same thing the next night against Toronto. He was plus-4 for the season March 5, the highest rating among Buffalo defensemen, but he’s minus-12 in the last 14 games.

“I had four bad periods,” McCabe said of this week. “It’s just one of those times where I had a little bit of a confidence issue and wasn’t performing. We’ve got guys in this lineup that can perform. If you’re not going to perform, you’re not going to play. That’s what it came down to.”

It remains to be seen whether that philosophy becomes more noticeable next season. For now, Josh Gorges just wants McCabe to know benchings happen.

“The only thing that I’ve said to him is, ‘Don’t even think twice about it,’” Gorges said. “‘It’s done. It’s gone. You’re a good player. You know you are. You’ve proved it over and over. You’ve been outstanding for us all year.’

“You know what? It’s going to happen again. You’re going to have another game where you’re going to make a mistake and you’re going to cost a goal or you’re going to make a turnover or you’re going to have a tough couple stretches or periods. That’s hockey. That’s part of what we do. We make mistakes. The biggest thing is to know that it’s done, it’s over, it’s a new day.”

Added McCabe: “As a whole group, we need to just be accountable to each other and have each other’s back.”

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