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Ullmark putting up numbers to get more chances in Sabres' net

Phil Housley isn't holding his breath and hoping for success when he calls on his backup goaltender. He expects to get rewarded, a luxury a lot of NHL coaches don't have.

The way Linus Ullmark is playing, he might be in line for a few more starts for the Buffalo Sabres.

Ullmark took the loss in Saturday's 5-4 overtime defeat in Columbus but the decision was hardly his fault. The winning goal was a rocket just under the crossbar by Artemi Panarin 31 seconds into OT that almost no one could stop. Perhaps only one of the five goals Ullmark gave up in the game was questionable and even that one, a five-holer by Cam Atkinson in the second period, came on a 2-on-1 break.

Like his previous two starts this season, Ullmark was calm in the crease. Pucks were swallowed by his body and rebounds were few. His glove hand was in an active position, quickly spearing many shots without incident.

In three starts, Ullmark is 2-0-1 with a 2.00 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage. That percentage is 10th in the NHL for goalies with at least three starts.

Starter Carter Hutton, meanwhile, is at 4-4, 3.07 and .905 in his eight games. But in his last five games, his save percentage is just .877, which is not nearly good enough.

For the first month of the season, the Sabres have been content to go slow with Ullmark. Hutton started all four games of the opening homestand but things are more even since. It's been a 4-3 split for Hutton/Ullmark, with Ullmark starting all three Saturday games on the road.

Ullmark posted a 36-save shutout Oct. 13 in Arizona, his first in the NHL. He came within eight minutes of another shutout in the Oct. 20 win at Los Angeles before getting the call in Columbus. Against the Blue Jackets, a much better overall club, he saw a season-high 37 shots on goal and by far his most odd-man rush attempts.

All the activity was no bother to him. Especially since his work in goal helped the Sabres wipe out a 4-2 deficit and scratch out a point by getting to overtime.

"If I'm putting up saves, it's a lot more fun then if you're letting in six, seven or eight goals," Ullmark said. "It was a fun game, a great game by us to make a strong comeback at the end."

"Linus made some big saves during the game," said coach Phil Housley. "He saw too many Grade A chances and situations we need to clean up. We were way too loose. We're not going to win a lot of hockey games playing like that and we know that."

It's a mixed bag for Sabres in wild overtime loss

Ullmark, 25, made his pro debut with 20 games for the Sabres and 28 for Rochester during he 2015-16 season. But he only played a combined six games in the NHL for Buffalo the last two seasons as he got in 99 as the starter in Rochester.

He improved his numbers last year with the Amerks to 2.44 and .922, clearly establishing he was ready for the NHL. The Sabres didn't bring back Robin Lehner or Chad Johnson, and the tandem of Hutton and Ullmark has been a clear improvement.

The Sabres entered Sunday 15th in the NHL in team save percentage (.905) and 17th in goals-against average (3.00). Last year, they were 29th in both categories, at 3.35 and .896, respectively.

"I feel good. I'm really happy every time I get the chance to go in there and play," Ullmark said. "Whenever I get the chance, I want to seize the moment, do what I do best and just go out there and enjoy it."

Ullmark, taken in the sixth round of the 2012 draft, is 6-foot-4 and has had to learn to control his body over the course of his career. The Sabres have him playing more calmly in the crease, with less scrambling and flopping. Less panic in net is also a simple sign of maturation in a goalie as well.

"He's been very square to the puck. He's not fighting things," Housley said. "He's letting the puck hit him and he's been really good challenging. When the moment is there, he'll get out and challenge the shooters. All of those things and his puck-handling ability have helped our defense out. He's been solid for us."

Ullmark hasn't given up the kind of deflating soft goals the Sabres became known for last year. Hutton has yielded a couple of those in recent games but the club has been able to overcome them to this point.

Ullmark will certainly get a couple of chances this week as the Sabres enter a busy stretch. They host Calgary Tuesday, have a home-and-home with Ottawa (Thursday on the road and a Saturday matinee at home) and are in Madison Square Garden to meet the New York Rangers next Sunday. The team did not practice Sunday.

"We can take forward here being on the road, being down two against a good hockey team, we found a way to earn a point," Housley said after the loss to the Blue Jackets. "We'll learn from the mistakes we made but we have to take credit where it's due. We did a terrific job battling on the road to get a point."

The Wraparound: Blue Jackets 5, Sabres 4 (OT)

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