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Mike Harrington: Time for Sabres to turn the crease over to Linus Ullmark

You start from the top before you dig deeper. Doesn't matter who you want to blame. The Buffalo Sabres are just flat-out giving up too many goals.

Tuesday's 5-4 shootout win against Minnesota marked the eighth time in the last nine games opponents have scored at least three times. There's been a pair of seven-goal blowups in there, against Edmonton and Chicago. And the one time the Sabres kept the yield under three, they still lost in a 1-0 affair in Dallas.

Goals are often everyone's fault, as the goalies are the last line of defense. My view has long been considered harsh on goalies, often passing exclusive blame when the responsibility could have been shared.

But there's no doubt after Tuesday's game, even after he gave up four goals, that it's time for the Sabres to give Linus Ullmark a run in the crease. He made 41 saves through regulation and overtime and two more in the shootout. It's hard to ask for much more.

And he even took a knee to the head from Zach Parise on the final shootout attempt. Hunched over as he left the ice while his teammates celebrated, you wondered how Ullmark would respond.

How does he feel?

"I feel fantastic. A win 5-4. I feel absolutely awesome," Ullmark said. "I have no clue what happened. I made the save."

It was a game that featured 84 shots on goal (45 by Minnesota) and the Sabres gave up the tying goal with 1:37 left and Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk on the bench for an extra attacker. They gave up 19 shots on goal and three goals in the second period. And still won.

"We really tried this game to keep it down but there's going to be games where it's a 5-4 game, 6-5 game, whatever," Ullmark said. "Every game you have to focus on next puck. I can't stop after I make, say, 10 saves. It doesn't work like that."

The Wraparound: Sabres 5, Wild 4, SO

It's hard to argue much about Ullmark's night.

"It's sort of indicative of the way we've been playing," said coach Phil Housley. "We've been focusing on tightening it up. There's times in the game you really have to be smart and not beat ourselves. Tonight we almost beat ourselves but Linus played outstanding, really attacked the game.

"He was really charging out to pucks, fighting through traffic and didn't give them a lot of second opportunities. It's just tough to see that fourth goal go in because he's played such a good game up to that point."

Ullmark was strong on the short side early. He robbed old friend Marcus Foligno in the first period after a Lawrence Pilut turnover. He stopped Parise on a breakaway in overtime and made a couple of other stops in the extra session on the Wild standout.

"Some of the saves he made tonight were incredible," said forward C.J. Smith, who saw lots of Ullmark heroics last year in Rochester. "Probably one of the main reasons we ended up winning that game. He made some really timely saves."

The Sabres have given Carter Hutton ample opportunity in the last two months. He kind of mirrors the team: Great during the 10-game winning streak and pretty mediocre since.

Housley has kept going back to Hutton, seemingly to a fault. Last week's decision seemed the most egregious after Hutton gave up four goals in a win in Columbus and Ullmark was strong in the loss to Dallas. Back came Hutton to start Friday's game against Chicago and he was gone by the end of the second period.

Ullmark got the call Tuesday, as the Chicago loss should be considered a tipping point for Hutton.

The issue seems pretty clear. Hutton signed the three-year free agent contract over the summer and Ullmark is the prospect. When you're the coach, you're going to play the veteran free agent your GM signed. That's how the game works, and not just in Buffalo.

But now the calendar has hit February and the playoff push is real. After Tuesday's performance, assuming he's OK physically, Ullmark is certainly going to start Thursday against Carolina – which has beaten the Sabres seven straight times. Hutton will undoubtedly get another chance here this weekend, when the Sabres host Detroit and Winnipeg in back-to-back matinees.

But for the next little while, this should be Ullmark's crease. The numbers have been roughly the same with both goalies except for the record. Ullmark is 11-5-3 while Hutton is 15-15-3. Part of that is what Housley likes to call "run support," using the baseball analogy of a team getting more runs for certain pitchers. The Sabres haven't scored much for Hutton.

Sometimes, that's because a team is more conservative in front of certain goalies who might be struggling. Ullmark wasn't going to get drawn into such a discussion.

"I'll take it day by day. Tomorrow is a new day. Practice," Ullmark said. "The sun will rise – even if it's been bad weather lately. So I'm not taking anything for granted. I'm just looking forward to tomorrow."

This wasn't an easy game by any means. The Sabres gave up three more goals and 19 more shots in the second period Tuesday. They're minus-13 on the season in the middle frame. They have to figure out the "long change" period.

Ullmark gave up a tough wraparound goal to Jared Sturgeon in the second period that Housley said he came close to challenging for goalie interference. Parise's tying goal late in the third just snuck past Ullmark's leg inside the post. It was a real downer. Ullmark didn't let it linger in OT.

"There's another game in two days and then there's a back-to-back coming up," Ullmark said. "Every game is a battle. We want to make the playoffs, we have to make a push. We know that. Every game is the most important game of the day.

"Just refocus. Focus on the next puck. All the simple stuff. It doesn't matter if it's 4-4, 6-5, 10-5 or whatever. We play 60 minutes, 65 or a shootout today."

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