OTTAWA – He was shaking hands and cracking jokes in the hallways of the Canadian Tire Centre Tuesday afternoon, trying to get out any emotion beforeLehner he took the ice from the visitors bench for the first time at Canadian Tire Centre.
Robin grew up in the Ottawa Senators organization, spending seven years in the system and inching his way to an NHL goaltender. He was supposed to be the goalie of the future for the Sens. That is until injuries and inconsistent play pushed the Senators to deal him in the summer, sending him to Buffalo.
The 24-year-old had his first crack at a triumphant return against his former team in the October season opener. That lasted only 27 minutes before a high ankle sprain knocked Lehner back to injured reserve for three months.
Tuesday, in his fourth start since returning to the lineup, Lehner finally had the return he wanted.
Lehner made 34 saves, including 22 in the third period, to help the Sabres to a 3-2 win over the Ottawa Senators and end their three-game losing streak as they head into the All-Star break.
The 23rd shot by the Senators Bobby Ryan came a tick too late. It appeared Ryan tied the game at the final second but replay confirmed time had expired before the puck crossed the goal line.
“I remembered that the buzzer is pretty slow here but I was nervous,” joked Lehner.
Lehner was frustrated early in the game when Erik Karlsson scored on a rebound to give the Senators a 1-0 lead, after the Sabres started the game leading Ottawa, 6-0, in shots on goal.
The play was reviewed for goalie interference, but the goal stood.
Evander Kane took advantage of an unusual bounce to get the Sabres on the board and knot the game, 1-1, after one.
But Ottawa again took the lead, this time on a rebound put away by Ryan at 10:03 of the second.
“The first one I think is goalie interference. That’s the end of it,” Lehner said. “I think he puts his stick on my pad and pushes me the other way from where the puck is coming from. I mean the second one, yeah I want to control but it’s through a lot of traffic and I can’t find the puck and Bobby Ryan’s pretty good in close. But of course I want better.”
He atoned in a way for that goal a few minutes later, playing the puck up to Jack Eichel on the power play. Eichel used his speed to accelerate though the Ottawa zone then potted the puck on a wraparound to tie the game and give the Sabres new life.
It was the second career assist for Lehner which was meaningful “especially here,” Lehner said “because me and the goalie coach always argued that I can’t play the puck, so it was perfect. … I was just sitting there holding the puck and I saw their whole line change so I just passed it up.”
It was Eichel who gave the Sabres the 3-2 lead just 1:08 in the third, tipping a pass from Zemgus Girgensons and putting in his own rebound. That was one of only two shots the Sabres had in the period.
Then came the Ottawa onslaught. They fired 22 shots at Lehner, who was spot on for all of them, including ripping a glove save on Karlsson with 4:26 left to play.
He had to come up big in the final two minutes as the Sens pulled goalie Craig Anderson, then worked a 6-on-4 advantage for the final 23 seconds of the game after Mike Weber was called for hooking.
But Lehner had already settled into his zone.
“Last minute, last period, several big saves,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “We were playing a lot of defense in the third period and Robin was a big part of that. He had three or four really big saves where they had great looks with their good people shooting it and he came up big.”
But what impressed Bylsma the most wasn’t just that final period, but the way he collected himself after that first goal.
“I thought it was disappointing the way the game started for us,” Bylsma said. “We were carrying the play and had some shots and opportunity at the other end. The first one that comes back down to our end, he makes a save and the rebound goes in and you’re feeling a little bit on the other side of the breaks and the bounces.
“I liked him staying calm and collected in net. We fought back in the game. We get the power play goal and we come out in the third, get the lead, and settled into defense a little bit, but I liked how Robin settled into the game and stayed strong throughout.”