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Sabres' Linus Ullmark surging, could earn second consecutive start

Linus Ullmark is winning like never before.

The Sabres’ backup goaltender is up to a career-high nine victories in 13 starts this season after a 4-3 triumph against Florida on Thursday, and Saturday’s game in Boston could be the first time this season coach Phil Housley chooses to start Ullmark in consecutive games rather than a healthy Carter Hutton.

Ullmark played three games in a row in early December when Hutton was dealing with an upper-body injury, going 1-1-1 in that stretch. All he’s done since is win, including in a previous game at Boston on Dec. 16, when he stopped 35 of 37 shots in a 4-2 victory against the Bruins.

“I thought Linus had another solid game,” Housley said after practice Friday at KeyBank Center. “I think he’s unbeaten in four. He had a terrific game in Boston the last time we played there, so we’ll take all those factors in effect.”

Hutton owns a 13-12-3 record this season, while Ullmark is 9-1-3 and second in the NHL in points percentage for backup goalies at .808 (21 of 26 points). The only one better is Winnipeg’s Laurent Brossoit, who has an 8-1-1 record and .850 points percentage (17 of 20).

Among players with at least 12 games played, Ullmark's save percentage of .922 entered Friday 10th in the league and tops among rookie goalies, a group the 2012 sixth-round pick belongs to based on career games played. His 2.73 goals against average was second among rookies to Arizona’s Adin Hill (2.36).

Hutton, 33, ranks 17th in the league with a .917 save percentage and is 20th overall with a 2.63 goals against.

“There’s always that internal competition to play and compete and push each other,” Hutton said, “but it’s in a healthy manner. At the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup and you can’t do that without two good goalies.”

Ullmark, 25, has been particularly strong of late.

He’s won four consecutive starts, allowing just eight goals while stopping 136 of 144 shots. He has a 1.98 goals against average and .944 save percentage in those four games (eight goals allowed in 242 minutes). And he’s made at least 35 saves in the last three.

In the locker room, there is no goalie controversy, but an appreciation for two guys pushing each other for the benefit of the team.

“I think the era of just relying on one goalie is over,” defenseman Zach Bogosian said. “I think you need two good goalies, and that seems to be what they found here, and it’s good to see.

“Hutts, being the veteran, he’s been a backup for most of his career. I think he’s really good at communicating with people. I think he’s a really good teammate. And I think he sets a great example for Linus, day-in, day-out, how to be a professional. Hutts is the perfect guy to share the net with, because he wants Linus to do well and he also wants to do well and it makes for a healthy competition. At the end of the day, they both want to win, so if they help each other out, it’s going to be good for the team.”

Ullmark has benefited from more goal support than Hutton.

The Sabres have scored 15 goals in Ullmark’s last four starts, an average of 3.75 goals per game.

They’ve scored 10 times in Hutton’s last six starts, an average of just 1.67 goals per game.

“The guys have been playing well in front of me,” Ullmark said, “so I’ve got a lot of gratitude toward the boys. It’s hard to go out there as a goalie and play for yourself. You’ve got to have a team in front of you, you know? So I’ve had that a couple of games now and I’m happy about that.”

Jeff Skinner, second in the NHL in goals scored, said the discrepancy is a coincidence.

“I think we’re trying to score as many goals as we can no matter what game it is,” Skinner said, “but (Ullmark has) been playing really well and we’ve been playing well in front of him. It’s been a good combination and hopefully he can keep it up.”

This is an interesting moment for Housley.

Hutton signed a three-year, $8.25 million contract with the Sabres last offseason. But the coach may be tempted to stick with the hot hand.

Hutton recently gave up a couple of terrible goals, including an overtime rebound against Boston on Dec. 29 and a goal through the glove in the third period against the Islanders on Monday.

And this is a huge game.

It’s the final meeting of the season with Boston. Jack Eichel remains sidelined with an upper-body injury. And the teams are tied at 50 points through 41 games, good for third place in the Atlantic. The winner gets within two points of the Maple Leafs (54) for second.

Ullmark last played in consecutive games from Dec. 4 to 11. He allowed 13 goals in that span, while producing a 4.17 goals against average and .870 save percentage (he stopped 87 of 100 shots).

Ullmark has to show he’s able to perform at a high level in back-to-back games to continue to earn a greater share of the starts.

And if he doesn’t get the opportunity against Boston?

“It is what it is,” Ullmark said. “I’m not going to hang my head and feel sorry for myself if I don’t get to play games. That’s not me. That’s not who I am. That’s not how I want to carry myself and present myself to my teammates. I just want to be a guy that is working hard and try to do his very best every day.”

Sobotka gets a breather

Vladimir Sobotka was granted a maintenance day and did not practice Friday. Scott Wilson skated in his place, centering the fourth line alongside Conor Sheary and Tage Thompson. Sobotka is expected to play Saturday at Boston, Housley said.

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