COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ralph Krueger noticed the lack of energy early in the first period Tuesday night. His lineup did not play in the preseason opener on Monday, yet the group had been on the ice for five consecutive days.
The Buffalo Sabres showed no signs of the up-tempo attack that the other half of his roster used to mount a three-goal lead against Pittsburgh one night earlier. The second preseason game was filled with poor forechecking, disorganized play in the defensive zone and included few quality scoring chances.
Though the Sabres showed promise at times on Tuesday, their inconsistent play resulted in a 4-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena. While the players are off Wednesday, Krueger and his staff will watch both preseason games to analyze and evaluate.
The Sabres' coach won't have to watch the film to assess one of the few promising performances from Tuesday night: goalie Linus Ullmark.
Ullmark, who is competing against Carter Hutton to start the season in goal, stopped 19 of 20 shots before being replaced by Andrew Hammond with 10:12 left in the second period. Ullmark flashed a blend of athleticism and sound technique while withstanding a barrage of shots in the first 20 minutes.
"I thought Linus recovered well from that early goal against," Krueger said. "He gave us a chance and bought us time to find our legs and find our game. Linus definitely left a good mark today."
The performance was an important step for Ullmark. After all, his first full season in the National Hockey League did not go as planned.
Though Ullmark played a career-high 37 games and almost seized the starting job last January, he finished with a .905 save percentage and 3.11 goals-against average. More concerning, Ullmark's confidence took a significant hit during the latter part of the season.
The 26-year old won only two of his final 12 starts, posting a .887 save percentage during that span. Prior to the season finale, Ullmark allowed three or more goals in eight of 11 games. Ullmark's technique deteriorated at times, but he told the media Tuesday that the greater challenge was the mental grind of an NHL season.
"It’s a long season, first of all," Ullmark said. "It’s way different than being in the minors, with all the travel, all the time zones, all the different changes. Being there every night was tough. Coming into this year, it's going to be easier mentally because you’re prepared for everything."
Ullmark was tested almost immediately Tuesday night. Columbus defenseman Seth Jones' pass to the left faceoff circle was one-timed into the net by winger Emil Bemstrom only 52 seconds into the game.
Though Ullmark was screened on the play, he took responsibility for being "a little slow" to glide to his right. He responded by stopping the next 12 shots he faced in the first period, including a remarkable blocker save on Columbus center Sam Vigneault's rebound shot. There was also Ullmark's glove save on a deflection early in the second period, which helped the Sabres maintain momentum after an ugly start to the game.
"He was huge for us there with a couple big saves," Sabres center Rasmus Asplund said of Ullmark. "That's something you get energy from and you can build on that. It was big for us."
Goaltending is a serious question mark for the Sabres entering the season.
Buffalo, now 1-1 this preseason, ranked fifth in the NHL in 5-on-5 save percentage during last season's first 25 games, a stretch that included a 10-game winning streak and during which both goalies faced the ninth-most unblocked 5-on-5 shot attempts.
The two goalies finished the season 25th in 5-on-5 save percentage after the team had numerous breakdowns in the defensive zone during the second half.
Rather than adding competition this offseason, the Sabres hired Mike Bales, who is regarded as one of the NHL's top goalie coaches. Bales won two Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh and his coaching helped Carolina's goalies lead the Hurricanes to the playoffs last season.
This is a particularly important season for Ullmark. He signed a one-year, $1.325 million contract this past offseason and, although he will still be a restricted free agent next summer, the Sabres' top goalie prospect, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, is getting closer to being ready to play in the NHL.
There is no questioning Ullmark's talent. He made a number of highlight-reel saves last season and has shown the potential to be a possible No. 1 goalie. The problem has been consistency.
"A lot, obviously," Ullmark said when asked if he is motivated by last season's struggles. "Looking forward to this season and aiming to [improve my lowest points]. Play my game for a whole season and not have any dips. There are going to be one or two games that are going to be bad, but I’m going to try to keep them as few as possible."
Rocky start: Winger C.J. Smith, among the young Sabres competing for a roster spot, was penalized for slashing only 42 seconds into the game, and the Blue Jackets' power play capitalized on Bemstrom's goal.
Disconnected: Krueger's mantra for the season is to "Play Connected," with and without the puck. The Sabres struggled in both respects for much of the first period. They were outshot 7-0 over the first seven minutes, only to not allow a shot on goal for the following seven minutes.
However, the Sabres did not have a shot on goal until 13:29 into the game. They registered seven over the final 6:31 of the period to gain some momentum. The Sabres struggled with passing, particularly when attempting to exit the defensive zone.
"When you have mixed groups in preseason, especially with new coaches and a new system, there's going to be speed bumps," defenseman Jake McCabe said. "We knew that going into it. What you really want to see is guys competing and making sure we're doing the right things and skating. Being aggressive."
Shutout spoiler: Victor Olofsson is showing he is capable of more than using his dynamic shot to score goals. The 24-year-old winger played a strong defensive game against the Blue Jackets and screened goalie Matiss Kivlenieks on McCabe's goal at 13:43 into the second period.
Asplund passed the puck to McCabe near the point, and Kivlenieks had no chance of seeing the defenseman's high shot, allowing the Sabres to tie the score, 1-1.
Bad bounce: The momentum gained from McCabe's goal did not last long. A routine shot by Blue Jackets winger Kole Sherwood hit Hammond's glove and rolled into the net to give Columbus a 2-1 lead at 15:48 into the second period.
Insurance goal: The Blue Jackets pulled away in the third period when Sonny Milano scored at 14:22 for a 3-1 lead. A pass went through the slot in front of Hammond and Milano was left alone near the crease, allowing him plenty of time to shoot into the open net.
Zac Dalpe added an empty-net goal with 1:26 remaining. The Sabres went 0-for-3 on the power play and were outshot, 33-29, for the game.
"They play a pretty simple, straight-line game," Krueger said of Columbus. "They came with big bodies at us and you have to remember for a lot of guys, it’s been many, many months since they’ve had people run at them. I thought we adjusted better in the second and we were able to get away from that pressure. Never used the o-zone time properly though."
Possible injury: Sabres winger Scott Wilson left the game in the second period with a lower-body injury and did not return. Wilson, who is competing for a roster spot, played 7:13 against Columbus.
Alternate captains: With Jack Eichel not playing, the Sabres had three alternate captains Tuesday night: Sam Reinhart, Kyle Okposo and McCabe. Defenseman Henri Jokiharju, who played Monday against Pittsburgh, was a healthy scratch.
Story topics: Buffalo Sabres