Robin Lehner wasn’t merely the Sabres’ injured goaltender for the past three months. He was also a regular observer.
“The team’s played a lot of good games,” Lehner said Thursday. “I’ve followed this team closely this year, and I’m very excited. It’s a totally opposite team. There’s been a lot of games where it looks like we’re right there, but it just slips away.”
It’s now his job to make sure the games no longer slip away.
Lehner, who hasn’t played since suffering a high-ankle sprain during Buffalo’s season opener, will return to the crease Friday against Boston or Saturday against Washington. The 24-year-old is eager to essentially start his Sabres career.
“I’m just excited to play again,” Lehner said in First Niagara Center, site of the next two games. “My family is excited for me to play. I’m not supposed to just sit at home and come in and work out. That’s not what I’m paid for. I like to play hockey, so it’s nice to be able to do that again.
“I’m ready. Is it going to be perfect? I don’t know, but I’m going to do my best. I’m going to compete, and I feel like I’m getting better every day.”
Lehner returned to Buffalo early Thursday morning after eight days with Rochester. He started three games for the Amerks, going 1-2 with a .888 save percentage and 3.36 goals-against average. He stopped 35 shots during a 4-0 loss in Albany on Wednesday night, then took a late-night ride back home.
He’s not as scared of the subpar numbers as others might be.
“I’m a competitive guy,” Lehner said. “I want to win, but obviously I also went down with the mindset I wanted to get back, you know? I just wanted to get back to being a goalie, see the pucks, work on some details, make some mistakes so I can correct the mistakes.
“Obviously, we lost, 4-0, the last game, but I felt good. I had a few unfortunate bounces, but I felt good. I felt in position. I felt like things were going in the right direction.”
How much Lehner plays will depend on his health and success. He felt soreness during his recent games, but it affected him less and less with each start.
“We have a plan right now in place for the next five days, and then we’ll see how we go from there,” said coach Dan Bylsma, who also has Chad Johnson to use after sending rookie Linus Ullmark to Rochester. “This is not going to be a situation where Robin plays the next 39 in a row. Chad’s going to get the net as well, and I think it’s important for us to have that to turn to with Chad.”
It won’t be a shock if signs of inactivity are evident with Lehner. His next start will be only his second in the NHL in 11 months. He suffered a season-ending concussion with Ottawa on Feb. 16, 2015, then lasted only 27:30 against the Senators on Oct. 8.
“It’s been very difficult,” Lehner said. “I don’t think many guys have gone through what I went through last year. I went down with a concussion, and Andrew Hammond comes in and plays out of this world. You lose your job. That’s how it works. I’ve got a new chance here, and I get injured again.
“It was crushing in the beginning this year, but I went through it, worked hard to come back.”
Eventually, the Sabres want a healthy Lehner to become the unquestioned No. 1 netminder. It’s why they acquired him from Ottawa during the offseason.
“If you don’t prove yourself, you don’t play here,” Lehner said. “It’s on a daily basis for everyone in this locker room and everyone in this whole league.”
Johnson is aware his role will change, but he says his mindset will remain the same. He’s appeared in 26 games, going 10-12-2 with a .916 save percentage and 2.46 GAA.
“It doesn’t really change what I’m doing,” Johnson said. “It’s just prepare every day and practice. When I have the opportunity to play, play hard and try to get the win.
“Robin coming back will probably get in a bunch of games here. I’m obviously going to be here to push him and try to help this team keep winning games.”
Ullmark, meanwhile, will continue his rapid development in Rochester. The rookie has outperformed expectations during his first year in North America, going 7-10-2 with a .915 save percentage and 2.58 GAA. Ullmark backstopped the Sabres to victories in their previous two games, stopping 70 of 74 shots.
“He’s a good guy and a good goalie,” Johnson said. “It’s just the situation, right? Everyone’s done that. Robin and me, same thing. You come up and play well and it doesn’t matter. There’s always guys that are above you. It’s part of the game.
“It was fun having him here, and I’m sure he’ll go down there and do well.”