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Sabres notebook: Goaltender Lehner confident support from offense will come

Robin Lehner has faced 105 shots in his last three games.

The Buffalo Sabres’ goalie has stopped 100 of them – a save percentage of .952.

Despite that astronomical number, Lehner’s record in that time is 0-3. The primary reason, of course, is a lack of goal support at the other end. Lehner’s teammates have managed to score just one goal in those three games. That came during Tuesday night’s 2-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers at First Niagara Center.

“We’re working hard, it’s just not going in right now,” Lehner said after practice Wednesday. “For me, I just try to take it save by save right now and do my best.”

Against Edmonton, Lehner stopped 39 of 41 shots, giving up a pair of goals to rookie superduperstar Connor McDavid. The first of those came just 22 seconds into the game after a Buffalo turnover allowed McDavid to skate in alone. The last ended the game in overtime, on a backhander Lehner probably wishes he had back.

“They came out strong. We … gave them a little bit too much space,” Lehner said. “They had a lot of good chances. They’re a fast team. They took advantage of their speed. They really forced us to make a lot of mistakes yesterday. I think they wheeled around our ‘D’ like five times.”

One of those came on McDavid’s overtime winner, when he shot down the right wing around defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen for the game-winning goal.

“He has tremendous speed,” Lehner said of McDavid. “I think he’s going to cut in and go far post, and then he catches me in a transition, which is unfortunate. You give a team 41-plus shots and a lot of chances, you’re going to make some mistakes.”

The problem right now is Lehner can’t afford any of them. The Sabres are stuck in a serious goal-scoring slump, with just 12 in their last seven games.

Lehner said Wednesday he’d be lying if he said that hasn’t changed his approach.

“When we’re scoring a lot usually you can play a little bit looser as a goalie,” he said. “A mistake might not be as costly, but I’m trying to stay calm. It’s just been a little tough period offensively for us. We’re battling hard, it’s just not going in for us right now. That’s frustrating.”

By now, Sabres fans are well aware that Lehner wears his emotions on his sleeve. But Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said that hasn’t been an issue.

“I don’t sense any frustration or any thought about the lack of goal support for Robin right now,” the coach said. “His mindset, his demeanor, he’s been strong and consistent in net.”

Lehner has made only 16 starts this season, so Bylsma is still learning about him as a goalie.

“He’s the only one I’ve ever had who has come to the bench and been a cheerleader for the team and a guy who’s prodding the guys forward,” Bylsma said.

In his 16 games, Lehner has a .933 save percentage and 2.29 goals-against average. That save percentage would lead the league if he had enough games played to qualify.

“He’s definitely doing his part, that’s for sure,” Sabres winger Evander Kane said. “As a team, we need to find ways to get more opportunities – get more Grade-A opportunities, and find ways to just get everybody involved in the offense.”

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The Sabres will be represented by at least a pair of players in the upcoming World Cup.

Following defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen’s selection to Team Finland earlier Wednesday, rookie center Jack Eichel joined Team North America later in the day.

Eichel is one of 16 players named to the North American squad – a collection of players from both the United States and Canada who are 23 years old and younger. That will make teammates out of players who have grown up competing against each other in international competition.

“It’s never warm and fuzzy when it’s a U.S.-Canada game,” Eichel said during an appearance Wednesday afternoon on NHL Network after being named to the team, before quickly adding, “it’s going to be great.”

Other notable players named to the North American team include the Oilers’ McDavid, Red Wings rookie Dylan Larkin, Avalanche forward Nathan McKinnon and Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau, as well as Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad.

Given the North Americans’ depth at center, the possibility exists that Eichel could shift to wing. That’s something he said he’s comfortable with.

“Nowadays most forwards are pretty versatile,” Eichel said. “If I have to play wing, I’m more than comfortable doing that.”

The Sabres could still have other players named to World Cup rosters. Center Ryan O’Reilly is a candidate for Team Canada, while fellow rookie Sam Reinhart could join Eichel on Team North America for the competition in September.

After Tuesday’s much-hyped matchup against McDavid, Eichel had what Bylsma referred to as his “best practice in a while” Wednesday.

“I thought he showed a lot of spunk and a lot of speed in practice today,” he said. “I was wondering if it was in response.”

email: jskurski@buffnews.com

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