Patrick Lalime didn't get much action at his end during the Buffalo Sabres' preseason opener Thursday. But things won't be that way all season because the Olympics create a compacted schedule with far fewer off nights.
When coach Lindy Ruff calls Lalime's number, it's going to be critical that Ryan Miller's backup is ready to man the net.
"Guys are excited. It's been a long summer and we've been dying to come back here," Lalime said before a 4-3 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals in HSBC Arena. "It's good to get into games, get the intensity up. All I want to do is play good and play consistent when I'm called upon. Last year I learned a lot. I just have to make sure I'm ready when I get in."
Lalime had an up-and-down season in the first half of a two-year deal with the Sabres. He was coming off a 16-12-2 campaign and 2.82 goals-against average in 2007-08 in Chicago but those numbers dropped off precipitously in Buffalo to 5-13-3 and 3.10.
"The schedule gets so compacted that there's going to be very few practices worth anything," Ruff said. "With the amount of back-to-backs we're playing and [the fact] we have the most four-games-in-six-nights in the league, we need our other goalie to win games. You can't sugarcoat that. [Lalime] has got to play well for us."
Miller finished 34-18-6 but Lalime and the departed Mikael Tellqvist combined to go just 7-14-3 when Miller was out with his ankle injury or getting a night off. That's not good enough any season and won't nearly suffice this year, when the schedule will force everyone's backup goalie into a bigger role.
Ruff seemed to lose confidence in Lalime after what the coach called a couple of "hiccup" outings in the early going last year. Lalime played just twice in December and only once in January, but it was hard to sit Miller anyway because the No. 1 man was having his best season.
Lalime played his best hockey in the immediate aftermath of Miller's injury, posting a 2.00 GAA and sparkling .941 save percentage in an eight-game stretch (the team was only 3-4-1 as the offense struggled).
Ruff said Lalime then started to feel the effects of a bad hip and that contributed to a slump Lalime endured in his final six starts (1-4-1, 4.35 GAA, .865 save percentage). In the spring, Lalime had surgery on the hip and to correct a sports hernia.
Lalime has struggled the last two years when he's spotted here or there, and has only played well when getting consistent ice time. He knows a healthy Miller is likely to get at least 60 starts this season. Dealing with spot starts is a point of emphasis.
"Sometimes you want to do too much when you only play once in a while," Lalime said. "I have to play solid. I have to trust the work we do with [goaltender coach Jim Corsi] in practice so that when I'm out there everything will be fine."
Lalime was called upon to make just six saves while playing a shade over 33 minutes Thursday -- and didn't face a single shot in the second period before he was relieved by Jhonas Enroth. Lalime had no chance on Alexandre Giroux's goalmouth tap-in at 8:30 of the first period that gave the Caps a 1-0 lead.
The Caps won after just 49 seconds of OT on Brian Pothier's goal during a two-man advantage. Enroth stopped 21 of 24 shots he faced.
The Sabres scored all three of their goals in the third period -- and South Buffalo native Tim Kennedy's neat backhander from in front with 2:32 left gave Buffalo a 3-2 lead. Great forechecking by Nathan Gerbe and a feed from Philip Gogulla set it up.
"That was pretty special and something I'll never forget," said Kennedy, the Michigan State product. "Hopefully I can do it when it counts during the real season."
The Caps, however, got that one back 23 seconds later on a goal by Jay Beagle after a giveaway by Marc-Andre Gragnani behind the net, then won it on Pothier's slapper from the left point in OT. Jason Pominville and Clark MacArthur scored earlier in the third for Buffalo.
The paid crowd was 17,597 but the in-house crowd was more in the 12,000 range. Not much name recognition in the Caps lineup as Alexander Ovechkin, Mike Green and Alexander Semin all sat out. . . . The Sabres play again Saturday in Detroit The other home preseason game is at 7 p.m. Wednesday against Toronto. . . . Longtime Sabres winger Maxim Afinogenov has signed a tryout deal with Atlanta. . . . The three-year deal signed Wednesday by Tyler Ennis, Buffalo's second No. 1 pick last season, is worth $875,000 per season.