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Mike Harrington: A massive win for Lehner

Dan Bylsma isn't prone to the hyperbole coaches often leap into after victories. So he wasn't patting goaltender Robin Lehner on the back willy-nilly Tuesday night.

After posting a 1-6-3 record in his last 10 decisions -- and earning only one victory at home all season -- Lehner had to find a way to get a win. Any way. No excuses about lack of goal support, bad bounces, officiating, anything. You're the No. 1 goalie, you have to win.

Lehner had some tough times in this game but didn't fret. He made 30 saves and must have wondered what all that noise was. He probably forgot what the KeyBank Center goal horn and DJ Kool clearing his throat had sounded like as the Sabres scored all their goals in the final 30 1/2 minutes of a 6-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings.

In four of Lehner's last five home games, the Sabres had scored one goal for him. He had given up 12, not bad but not nearly good enough either. He finally got the right combination for his first win since Nov. 21.

"I think it's massive for him," Bylsma said. "I think Robin would tell you that wasn't his best game but it was his best win."

Certainly his most necessary one.

Lehner didn't do much to exactly distinguish himself at times but he pushed his "next puck" philosophy hard to ride past the rough patches. There was a lot of mental toughness showed in the second half of this game, something we haven't seen nearly enough of the last couple of years. And it included the man in the crease.

"We all want to win but we have to look at the process," Lehner said. "We're working on our game. I'm working on my game. I've been feeling pretty good this year. Getting some production today was really nice. I don't have the wins that I want but that's just how it goes sometimes.

"There's been a couple of stretches this year with four or five games letting in two or less and haven't had many wins. You've got to go back to practice every day and just try to get better."

Good for Lehner. He works hard. He cares. His teammates have felt bad for him during his dismal run, even though they haven't done much to help him get out of it.

The biggest takeaway from the game was how this team didn't crumble when Lehner gave up a terrible goal to Jeff Carter early in the third period that cut Buffalo's lead to 4-3.

There was no reason for Lehner to be on his knees and let a shot from the boards whizz over his shoulder to halve a lead the Sabres forged with four goals in a 6:13 span of the second period. You have to get that save from your No. 1 guy. But Lehner was undeterred. There were a couple flurries later in the period and he stayed strong and quiet in his crease, making sure to keep the puck out of trouble.

"Pretty good shot," Lehner said of the Carter goal. "It's one I want back but again it was next puck, the guys weren't panicking and we just kept going."

"Our mindset was that's not going to be the one that's gets them back in the game, that's not going to be the one that gets the momentum," Bylsma said. "It was a game we earned with how hard we played and they needed it."

How hard they played for the second half, that is. This team was dead for nearly 30 minutes. Its No. 1 goalie hasn't been close to good enough most of the season to have that spot without plenty of question about whether he deserves it.

Lehner is just 2-5-2 at home while Anders Nilsson has been a beast here (4-1-1, 1.97 GAA, .942 save percentage). Nilsson is also on a 5-1-1 run thanks to more goal support -- and better play in the net overall. Another big issue going forward: Lehner has just one win all season -- one! -- against the Eastern Conference. That was his Nov. 5 triumph at Ottawa.

Otherwise, Lehner has beaten Edmonton, Winnipeg, Minnesota, Calgary and now Los Angeles. If the Sabres are going to sneak back into the playoff race, it would be nice if their top guy could make some saves against teams they are chasing.

Lehner let Anze Kopitar's shot squeak through his pads in the first period and was burned high glove by Carter's breakaway early in the second. A 2-0 hole seemed huge for him and his team to climb out of.

"You're almost ready to wonder if he's ever going to get a goal to win a hockey game," Bylsma admitted. "To his credit the guys came back for him, guys got goals for him. At the same time, he had to make some saves in the third that were big saves for us to preserve the victory."

The Lehner situation is a tough one. General Manager Tim Murray gave up a first-round pick to get him and Bylsma obviously knows that. It's not like the Sabres might be on the hook for $30 million like some other team you've heard of but one of the outgrowths of this season is they better be able to make their Tyrod Taylor-like decision on Lehner: With an expiring contract, is he going to be their No. 1 goalie moving forward or not?

The returns are iffy at this point. Lehner was just 5-9-5 last year in an injury plagued season. He's 6-9-4 this year. He's struggling with rebound control. He's so-so on breakaways, which has translated to disaster in shootouts. Chad Johnson was better than Lehner much of last year. Nilsson has been better much of this year.

For one night, Lehner got a few goals and a win. Let's see what this long-awaited booster shot does for him going forward.



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