Anders Nilsson has been waiting patiently for his first appearance in the Sabres’ net. It was coming soon anyway, but the timeline got bumped up with an illness to Robin Lehner.
Lehner, who started Buffalo’s first four games, will watch Tuesday’s visit to Philadelphia from home. He was too sick to join the team on its trip, so Nilsson will be the Sabres’ goaltender against the Flyers (7:30 p.m., NBCSN, Radio WGR-AM 550).
“Since Day One of camp, Anders has been a complete professional and warrior in net,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said Monday. “He’s battled in every practice, every scrimmage, every opportunity he got.”
Nilsson had a stellar preseason for the Sabres, stopping 49 of 50 shots in his first two appearances. The trade acquisition is eager to build off those performances with his regular-season debut.
“It all comes down to practice and how you prepare in practice,” Nilsson said in KeyBank Center. “You go out there for practice and try to see it as a game. For me, that’s the best way to prepare.”
Nilsson has taken the ice early with goaltending coach Andrew Allen on a daily basis, and Allen believes the work will be evident Tuesday.
“We work a lot in practice on being focused and playing it like a game situation,” Allen said. “He’s practiced well every day.”
Lehner, who is 1-2-1 with an .892 save percentage and 3.01 goals-against average, was scheduled to start against the Flyers. But with 11 games in the next 19 days, Nilsson’s time was near.
“We’ve got a lot of games in a short amount of time, and it goes right into November,” Bylsma said. “He had a two-week break before he gets his first game, but he’s going to get the net here with a number of games and back-to-back situations.”
The Sabres recalled Linus Ullmark from Rochester to serve as Nilsson’s backup. Ullmark is 3-1 for the Amerks with a .926 save percentage.
The promotion didn’t come until after practice, so the Sabres used Allen as their second goaltender. The 40-year-old had a long minor-league career, but he had donned the pads just once in the last five years.
“Embarrassing at times, but fun,” Allen said with a smile. “I got a little better as practice went on, but the first drill was tough. Reaction speed is not what it used to be.”
Bylsma tweaked his defensive pairs. Dmitry Kulikov moved up to play alongside Zach Bogosian, while Jake McCabe slid next to Cody Franson. Josh Gorges and Rasmus Ristolainen remained the top pair.
“I want Kulikov on the ice in more situations and more opportunities,” Byslma said. “The pairing of Josh Gorges and Risto, while it’s not together 100 percent of the time during the last four games, it’s been strong as the matchup pairing. It’s getting Dmitry more ice time. He needs it, deserves it and we need him to have it.”
Kulikov, acquired from Florida as a potential mate for Ristolainen, has no points and one shot while averaging 20:07 of ice time.
It’s early, but the Sabres have made tremendous strides in the faceoff circle. They entered Monday’s games ranked third in the NHL, winning 55.1 percent. They won 49.4 percent last season to rank 21st.
Sam Reinhart is at 63.1 percent, followed by Ryan O’Reilly at 61 percent. Derek Grant (54.7 percent) and Zemgus Girgensons (52.2 percent) are also winning more than half their draws. Johan Larsson is at 46.5 percent.
Jack Eichel is less than two weeks into the high-ankle sprain that could keep him out for eight weeks. As expected, he is still using his scooter and walking boot.
“It’s a slow progression,” Bylsma said. “Other than maybe walking around just a little bit on it, he’s still in a timeframe where he’s being very cautious in the boot.”
Evander Kane remains in the week-to-week category with three cracked ribs.
“It’s more of pain discomfort than anything,” Bylsma said. “He should be able to start moving here shortly – not crazily, but he should be able to start moving shortly here and go from there.”