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Ullmark's joy for the game lifts the Sabres to a win

The joy is always there for Linus Ullmark. There's a smile, often a wise-crack, and a love for the game of hockey, whatever the day may bring.

His attitude combined with his skill earned the goaltender a start with the Buffalo Sabres Thursday night. Those same attributes allowed him to backstop the Sabres to a 3-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets in KeyBank Center.

Ullmark made a career-high 44 saves and picked up his first NHL win since making 24 saves against the New York Islanders in the last game of the 2015-16 season.

"Very emotional inside. I try to keep it in," Ullmark said. "It's been my dream ever since the last summer to get it all together and come up here and play. I'm very humble and very happy about what happened tonight."

While the Sabres came out with power and a strong game in the first period to grab a 1-0 lead, the Blue Jackets had plenty of push-back in the second and third. Ullmark had to make all kinds of saves. He flashed the glove to save a shot from Seth Jones with 9:54 left in the second period. He found the puck during a few goalmouth scrambles. He smothered the puck to get whistles when his teammates desperately needed a moment to regroup.

And he did all with a sense of ease, purpose, and calm.

"I thought he was really compact, very calm in net," Sabres forward Kyle Okposo said. "He made a lot of saves look easy and a lot of pucks were hitting him in the chest. He looked really calm back there and that was the first game I've seen him play live in the regular season. I thought he did a really good job. We don't want to give up 45 shots too many nights but we'll take that win."

Confidence is what coach Phil Housley saw from his goaltender, the first time he's seen Ullmark play an NHL game.

"I think he's carried (confidence) forward from Rochester," Housley said. "He's very calm. He doesn't overplay things. He's pretty tight. He's pretty square to the puck and he makes that first save. He fought through some traffic then he made the second save. He stepped up, he was really on his angle and challenging and you could see the confidence in his game."

The Wraparound: Sabres 3, Columbus 1

Ullmark became a familiar face to Sabres fans in the 2015-16 season when he played 20 games, mostly early in the season as Robin Lehner was out with a high ankle sprain. His "minions" mask was unmistakable, quirky, and endearing, and the native of Sweden looked like a starting goalie of the future.

With Lehner healthy, Ullmark went to Rochester where he's been steadily developing.

His first season saw him get 28 games with the Amerks, posting a 3.41 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage.

Last season, in 55 games with the Amerks, his numbers improved as his goals-against dropped to 2.87 and his save percentage improved to .909. Though he was recalled by the Sabres seven different times last season, he made just one NHL appearance, recording 33 saves in the Sabres' season-ending loss at Tampa Bay on April 9.

This season, his numbers are even better with Rochester. Through 26 games with the Amerks, he has a 2.27 goals-against and a .928 save percentage, earning him his second straight selection to the American Hockey League All-Star Game.

They key to his development, Ullmark said, isn't so much about technical work on the ice. His answer to questions about the growth in his game have always had a holistic bent.

"Mostly as a person," Ullmark said about how he's grown during the last three seasons. That includes getting married and now expecting his first child.

And it includes watching other players for ideas while staying true to himself.

"It's watching all the pros up here in Buffalo and also the pros that we have down there in Rochester and trying to figure out what's good for me, what works for me," Ullmark said. "If you do that, you can keep yourself in good shape and you can put up a lot more in games and all that stuff."

What works for Ullmark is keeping calm and being a goalie his team can feed off. It's something that defenseman Brendan Guhle has witnessed all season in Rochester. Ullmark finds ways to make saves and keep his team in games. But more importantly for Guhle, it's what Ullmark brings to the dressing room that makes him special.

"He's just a great teammate," Guhle said. "He's always got time for you and in return it reflects on the ice. He's always going to be there for you and you know you can trust him to do his job back there. If you're battling for him, he's going to battle for you. He's a real positive guy. I love being around him."

The feeling was mutual for Ullmark, who was perhaps as happy for Guhle to get his first NHL point as he was to get himself back in the NHL win column.

Guhle, in his second game with the Sabres this season, had the secondary assist on Kyle Okposo's goal that put the Sabres up, 2-0, in the third.

But aside from the assist, Guhle was again impressive on the blue line. He was plus-2 with two shots, three hits, and 16:10 of ice time. Several times he joined the rush, once a bit too eager, skating offside ahead of Jack Eichel.

"He wants to attack the game in a good way and he wants to get involved in the rush and sometimes he got a little too anxious, got too far ahead of it and had to put on the breaks," Housley said of Guhle. "But he's trying to do the right play. He's trying to get involved in the rush. He's trying to attack the game and that's what we need from our defense."

Oh, the other noticeable thing about Guhle? He smiles. A lot.

"It's funny because he's got a smile on his face when he comes to the rink," Housley said. "He's happy to be here. He wants to contribute in the worst way and good for him. He's used the confidence that he's gained down in Rochester and brought it up here."

With the Sabres beginning their bye week with five days off, Ullmark and Guhle will return to the Amerks, who play at home Friday against Binghamton, at Syracuse on Saturday, and home again Monday to host Utica.

 

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