During Ryan Miller’s decade in Buffalo, he carved out a reputation as one of the NHL’s most cerebral goaltenders. Not only could he read plays, he could describe why they happened and offer advice on how to improve the situation.
Robin Lehner is following suit. The Sabres goalie has become a key deliverer of data in the dressing room. Healthy and confident with his role on the team, he’s comfortable enough to point out mistakes, both his teammates’ and his own.
He’s certain the Sabres will learn from them and become the playoff contender everyone hoped they’d be.
“We’re not happy when we lose,” said Lehner, who will likely start Tuesday in Ottawa. “We’re trying to find the answer. It’s not like we’re sitting back and not doing anything. This is not the same. We’re going to do everything we can throughout the season. We’re going to try and get better with our game.
“We have a lot of team meetings. We’re looking over things on video with the coach. Everyone’s doing personal stuff with the coaches. We’re really trying to get better and be all-in, and I think that’s going to be the key to our success. That’s really what I think.”
As the Sabres’ offense has struggled mightily, the team has relied on its goaltenders. They’ve delivered. The .926 save percentage provided by Lehner and Anders Nilsson is tied with Ottawa for third in the NHL, behind only Minnesota (.937) and Montreal (.932).
“Robin came in in good shape, and you can see the effects of that in his practice, you can see the effects of that in the game,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “I don’t know if we knew exactly what we were getting in goaltending from Anders, but from Day One he’s worked extremely hard. He’s super consistent in his work ethic.
“It’s made for two guys in our net that have given us some great numbers to this point in the year.”
It hasn’t resulted in victories. The Sabres are 7-9-5, with their six regulation victories ahead of only the five recorded by the New York Islanders.
Lehner is confident the wins will come. There’s a decent chance he’ll deliver one against his old team. He’s 2-0-2 against Ottawa with a .956 save percentage and 1.30 goals-against average.
No matter the numbers, he’ll need help. He says he got plenty in his last start, a 2-1 shootout loss to Detroit on Wednesday, and he hopes it continues with Jack Eichel expected to return.
“You look at the overall game we had that game,” Lehner said. “We’re the better team. We’re the better-structured team. We have the most speed that game, I feel. The tightness of our team, I didn’t have a lot of shots. They did have some opportunities, but we were in place to disrupt those opportunities and getting a stick on it, forcing them to shoot outside.
“They got some good point shots with some tips. That’s what they got. When we play like that, we’re going to win games.”
Lehner has been vocal with his desire for Buffalo to play tighter. He’s seen progress during the last four games with the Sabres going 2-1-1.
“We’re emphasizing our third guy high in the offensive zone, and it’s helped both offensively and defensively,” Lehner said. “With everyone not being 100 percent on the same page, one jumps in and the other one not covering up, it’s just not been in sync. The third guy high has been a problem for us. That creates that our D does not have the gap that they should have because they don’t feel like they have the security to do that. It means the opponents break out and come with a lot more speed than they probably should have every game.
“It adds on. It’s a snowballing effect when you miss a few crucial things.”
The constructive criticism was reminiscent of Miller’s talks. Lehner doesn’t want credit for being a crease genius, however.
“It’s pretty much black and white when you’re on the ice,” he said. “As a goalie, we see when the mistakes happen because that’s when we start to get ready, when we see the certain red areas when things aren’t happening. We try to observe a lot.”
What makes Lehner smart is pointing out the things he sees.
“We have good communication with the D-men,” he said. “I’m a very vocal goalie out on the ice. I think we’re synchronized that way.”
His teammates are more apt to listen because they’re seeing Lehner daily. The ankle injuries that limited him to 21 games last year made him a mystery. He’s a regular this season, so players see what he can do and hear what he says.
“It’s a lot more fun this year,” Lehner said. “Being injured is probably the worst thing you can be as a professional athlete. You’re not around the team. It’s not the same routines. It’s just miserable.
“I feel pretty good. I feel like if we play a good game, I’ll play solid and hopefully I’ll start getting more and more really, really good games.”