Linus Ullmark knows he has improvements to make in order to succeed in the NHL. He’s not alone.
Once again, the Buffalo Sabres played just good enough to lose Saturday night. Their latest setback, a 4-3 loss to New Jersey, dropped their record to 2-6. Despite obvious progress from the previous two seasons, the Sabres keep adding numbers to their loss column.
“It seems like we’re right there,” center Jack Eichel said, “but at the end of the day, right there’s not enough.”
Ullmark, who stopped 24 of 28 shots in his NHL debut in the Sabres’ crease, had a similar feeling in First Niagara Center.
“I feel like I have some things to work on, like my quickness and my feet, but overall I’m kind of happy with my game,” said Ullmark, who added that it stunk to lose.
The goaltender’s debut will be remembered for a pair of last-minute goals that turned the momentum. New Jersey prevented the Sabres from taking a 1-0 lead into the first intermission, scoring with 49.8 seconds left to tie it. The Devils scored with 48.4 seconds to go in the second period to take a 3-2 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“He looked like an NHL goalie,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “We have a lot of belief in Linus as a goalie. I just don’t like the timing of the goals that were given in. We needed a save. We needed that puck to not go in at the end of the first, and we needed the save at the end of the second.”
As Bylsma noted, the Sabres believe in Ullmark. The organization thinks more highly of the 22-year-old than any other pro goaltending prospect. It’s likely he will return to the crease soon.
“He may be young, but he’s a pro,” said Buffalo goaltending coach Andrew Allen. “You can tell in his composure and how he analyzes the game. He’s a real student of the game, and you can tell that he put the time in – not just working on his on-ice game but the mental side of it and analyzing different game situations.”
Ullmark’s NHL debut was not to be confused with a professional debut. The 6-foot-4, 212-pounder spent the previous two seasons in Sweden’s elite league. His biggest adjustment will be to the size of the rink.
The ice surface is wider in Europe, so plays from the boards take longer to develop, if they develop at all. It’s quicker in the NHL, as Ullmark learned on the Devils’ third goal. The team made three cross-ice passes to get the goalie moving, then slipped a shot between his legs.
“It’s something I need to work on in my game to get it a lot faster to be able to compete with these guys,” Ullmark said. “Just the quickness on my feet. My stops need to be quicker, just be able to be stopped, set and square on every shot.”
Ullmark is already moving faster than he did last year. He had surgery on both of his hips in late April. While the procedures limited his training in the summer, they accelerated his motions in the crease once he got back.
“I’m way more agile now, and I can move a lot better,” he said. “If you’re having trouble to rotate your hips and all that, it’s a lot harder to play goalie.”
Allen said hip surgeries are increasing in the goalie world because new netminding techniques put more pressure on the hips than the knees. While the procedure sounds scary, the benefits are tangible.
“Goalies come back stronger after it,” Allen said. “It’s something that you have to monitor, but it’s not a real alarming situation. It seems like a guys are getting it done and then being really good after.”
The surgery actually provided Ullmark with a jump-start in his transition to the smaller rink. Because he wasn’t cleared to practice, he received one-on-one time with Allen.
“It was just us out there, and we could work a lot of angle stuff,” the goalie coach said. “He’s a real technically strong goaltender. He’s really good on his edges, and he’s got good reaction speed. There’s a lot to work with there. He’s a well-schooled goaltender at a young age. He’s a fun guy to work with because he’s got a lot of tools.
“It’s a process, but he’s coming.”