Carter Hutton prefers to not call this a comeback. The Buffalo Sabres' goalie feels he has played "pretty well for a while," despite serving as a backup in 10 of 15 games before Thursday.
Still, Hutton's performances against Tampa Bay and Washington, the latter of which the Sabres defeated 5-2 in front of a sold-out crowd Saturday in KeyBank Center, were reminiscent of his mastery during a 10-game win streak in November.
Hutton stopped 70 of 73 shots against the Lightning and Capitals, including 31 against the defending Stanley Cup champions. His spectacular saves energized his teammates and kept the Sabres' fading playoff hopes alive.
"He's had his shots, he's seen them early, and he's made the huge save for us later on in the game, which has been really important for us," Sam Reinhart said following his hat trick against the Capitals. "You've got to find those little things throughout the game to rally around. Those little saves, and that highlight-reel [save] is something you can really rally around."
Reinhart said following a 6-5 overtime loss to Carolina earlier this month that the Sabres needed more from their goalies, beginning at puck drop, only to backpedal on that comment following practice the next day.
The 23-year-old winger's remark seemed misguided at the time given the Sabres' continued defensive lapses. However, neither Hutton nor Linus Ullmark were making the sort of timely saves that carried the team during their memorable November.
Hutton allowed a few uncharacteristic soft goals and was pulled twice in three starts, which allowed Ullmark, 25, to take hold of the job. But Ullmark posted a paltry .885 save percentage while starting 10 of 13 games.
He was supposed to be in net against the Lightning but was held out because of a lower-body injury. Hutton, a 33-year-old signed to a three-year contract by the Sabres in July, proceeded to stop 39 of 40 shots during regulation and overtime. His lone non-shootout goal allowed was a 2-on-1 snipe by Nikita Kucherov, the NHL's leading scorer with 100 points in 62 games.
"He had a little bit of an attitude that he still knows he can play this game," Sabres coach Phil Housley said of Hutton's performance in Tampa Bay.
That earned Hutton his first consecutive starts in over a month, and he provided the Sabres with momentum-swinging saves against Washington, including a highlight-reel stop on Lars Eller in the second period. A breakdown by Zach Bogosian and Rasmus Dahlin left Eller alone backdoor, and Hutton quickly shuffled to his left before making a split save.
His only two goals allowed were a breakaway from Alex Ovechkin, the NHL's leading goal scorer with 44, and a deflection by Andre Burakovsky. Hutton posted a .959 save percentage over the two games and is expected to get the start Monday night in Toronto.
"I think the biggest thing is staying within myself," Hutton explained. "Not being too aggressive. It’s kind of a happy medium, walking that line. If you get too aggressive, they can zip the puck so fast and next thing you know they’re passing the puck around you. For me, it’s giving myself a good chance."
Hutton has struggled when he is either too passive or too aggressive, particularly when an opponent rushes through the neutral zone. That has left him out of position and affected his rebound control. As a result, Hutton had a .893 save percentage in 14 starts following the winning streak. His save percentage was .936 during the Sabres' 10-game run to first place in the NHL.
His last four starts have raised his season save percentage to .912, which is tied with Pittsburgh's Matt Murray for 13th among goalies with at least 30 games. That ranks well above league average (.904), and the Sabres had a combined .904 save percentage last season.
"I’m just trying to compete," Hutton added. "There are lots of things I can and can’t control. I think that’s something I can control, is my attitude and my compete level. It’s something I try to bring all the time no matter what."
Housley noted that Hutton is at his best when aggressive, which helps him pounce on opponents' second chances. Hutton ranks first in the NHL in fewest rebounds allowed per save, according to the analytics site MoneyPuck.com.
Led by Ovechkin, the Capitals' power play entered Saturday tied for 10th in the NHL, yet they went 0-for-2 against the Sabres because Hutton stopped all five of their shots on goal. Buffalo's defensive-zone coverage limited Washington's time and space, and Hutton was there to clean up any mistakes.
He was not dejected when sitting behind Ullmark in recent weeks. After all, this season is Hutton's first legitimate opportunity to be a starter in the NHL, and he intends to make the most of it.
"I just like his attitude," Housley said following Saturday's win. "He’s attacking it. He’s got that focus right now that he’s going to stand big and stand tall. His last two games were really exceptional."
Wilcox signs two-way contract
The Sabres announced Sunday that they signed goalie Adam Wilcox to a one-year, two-way NHL contract and then placed him on waivers with the purpose of keeping him in Rochester.
Wilcox, 26, has a .896 save percentage in 21 games with the Amerks and serves as a backup to Scott Wedgewood. Wilcox previously was on an AHL deal and the roster move would allow the Sabres to add him to their roster.
Wilcox has compiled a .900 save percentage in 126 career AHL games and stopped all 14 shots he faced in his NHL debut with the Sabres against Florida in April.