One night after setting a personal record for games played, Robin Lehner was supposed to rest. Instead …
“That was maybe the best he’s looked all year in net,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said.
Lehner’s perfect relief performance Saturday gave him 49 appearances in Buffalo’s crease this season. He played in 47 junior games back in 2009-10, so he’d been waiting a long time to be trusted with this kind of workload.
“It’s nice,” Lehner said in KeyBank Center. “You think you’ve got to deserve it to keep playing. I think I just prepare myself to play every game.
“Right now it’s mixed emotions. I really want this team to do well. Personally, it’s nice to play a lot. Long season, there’s going to be ups and downs, but I’ve been battling hard. It’s been going good.”
Buffalo’s up-and-down season was reflected during Saturday’s 5-3 victory over Columbus. The Sabres were lifeless and outclassed for 20 minutes while falling in a 3-0 hole. During the second and third periods, they showed emotion, displayed scoring ability and got 24 saves from Lehner.
“As I said, it goes up and down, especially – I don’t know if ‘young team’ is the right word, but ‘not-matured team’ yet,” Lehner said. “We have a long way left to go. We have some really big bright spots in our game, some good players, but you’ve got to find a way to be better at all things in all areas.”
The 25-year-old included himself in that statement. He’s 19-20-8 with a .921 save percentage, which ranks eighth in the NHL. The crease has essentially been his since mid-January. He’s appeared in 22 of the last 27 games, going 10-8-3 while matching his season save percentage of .921.
“I’m learning to handle things,” he said, “like just getting more experience, handling the ups and downs and handling the positives, the disappointments Forget games, go to the next one. Forget goals, go to the next save.
“It’s just learning more and more about the game of hockey. I’ve played my whole life, but it’s a learning curve for all of us in the room right now. It’s very obvious the parts of our game that’s not working.”
Breakaways, specifically shootouts, have been Lehner’s sore spot this season. Lately, teams have had success shooting high on the 6-foot-4, 239-pounder.
He excelled in those areas Saturday, most notably after the Sabres made it 3-2.
“He made some pretty huge stops for us on breakaways and two-on-ones,” left wing Matt Moulson said. “He’s a battler when he’s in there.”
No one questions Lehner’s passion and competitive attitude. While there have been doubts about his ability to be a game-changing No. 1 netminder, he clearly wants to be. In a hockey city that’s been blessed in net since Roger Crozier won the opening game, the goalie is a focal point. Lehner has learned that, and he’s embraced it.
He speaks his mind at time when toes don’t like to be stepped on.
“I’m fine taking positives, and I’m fine taking negatives, too,” Lehner said. “It’s a city that wants to be successful, and we want to be successful. I’m happy to be on both sides of that coin.
“I’ll speak my mind. I will speak and say what is wrong, and if people have a problem with it, it’s their problem. At the end of the day, my main goal is to try to help this team be successful. I think everyone on our team just wishes we could make it happen.”
The victory over the Blue Jackets ended a three-game losing streak and moved the Sabres to 2-6-2 in the last 10. Only 13 games remain, starting Tuesday in San Jose, and the Sabres (28-29-12) still have a lot to learn.
The coaches and some players believe a systematic game is the key to success. Others believe freewheeling hockey can help. They have to find a balance that works or make believers out of the others.
Each side can point to numerous instances to bolster their case. The second and third periods Saturday point to the players’ freewheeling nature.
“Maybe we just play a little bit more,” forward Tyler Ennis said. “Maybe we don’t worry so much about exactly where to be on the ice. Maybe we just say” forget “it and go do a little more, try to create a little bit more.”
It helped that Lehner was perfect behind them.
“He was excited to go,” Ennis said. “He was just telling us to go after it, don’t sit back, just go after it. Even when we were tied up, he said go after it. We did, and he did a great job.”
With five back-to-backs remaining, it’s reasonable to assume Lehner will head to the crease eight more times. That would give him 57 appearances, the most since Ryan Miller had 61 in 2011-12.
They won’t all be as perfect as Saturday, but Lehner wants them to feel just as important for himself and the Sabres.
“It’s a team game,” Lehner said. “A lot of things have to click. The league is too good these days. I think there’s a lot of positives, though. I think we’re competitive every night, and we’ve just got to keep working at it.”