Linus Ullmark smiled at his stall inside the KeyBank Center dressing room Friday night and delivered a harsh self-assessment of a performance that showed the resolve and reliability needed from a No. 1 goalie.
Ullmark lamented the two third-period goals he allowed in the Buffalo Sabres' 6-4 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. He didn't think he played well in his fourth career game against the Leafs and expressed relief that his teammates, led by Jack Eichel's three points, created enough offense to snap a five-game skid against their rivals.
Eichel, on the other hand, gushed over Ullmark's 25-save performance, including the back-to-back stops on William Nylander in the first period. Those glove saves on Nylander, including one on a breakaway, gave the Sabres (12-10-4) the momentum to rally from a two-goal deficit.
"Huge," Eichel said without hesitation. "As a team I think it gets us a little momentum when your goaltender is playing like that. You’re really confident. He made so many big saves throughout the whole night and huge opportunities, too. There’s key times in the night he was making a lot of big saves for us. It’s so good to see him have success tonight and get the W."
Ullmark, 26, has emerged as the Sabres' No. 1 goalie over the past three weeks, recording a .905 save percentage while starting six of the past eight games. He's made important saves to buy enough time for his teammates to find their game during a month in which Buffalo has only three regulation wins.
The Sabres appeared destined for their sixth consecutive loss against the Leafs (12-11-4), when Nylander earned a breakaway a little over six minutes into the game. However, Ullmark made a glove save on his former teammate and made another less than two minutes later when Nylander skated down the ice for a 2 on 1.
Ullmark also made a glove save on Jake Muzzin, but he could not hold off the Leafs any longer. John Tavares scored his first of two goals when he was left wide open in the right-wing circle for a 1-0 lead with 1:06 left in the first period.
"Obviously it’s nice to make those big saves early in the catcher against (Nylander) as well, especially with our history together, but they're such a good team," Ullmark, who played with Nylander for MODO in the Swedish Hockey League, said. "So, even though you make four big saves in the first period they’ll have more chances coming. That’s what happened later."
The Leafs did not relent. Taveres got a fortuitous bounce when his shot ricocheted off the end boards and toward the front of the net. Toronto's captain managed to poke the puck away from Ullmark and across the goal line for a 2-0 lead at 1:21 into the second period.
The Sabres' offense finally woke up when Jeff Skinner scored his 10th goal of the season to cut the deficit to one. During the first of two failed power plays — the Sabres' slump on the advantage is now at 1 for 35 — Ullmark made another breakaway stop, this time on Kasperi Kapanen.
Ullmark was calm in the face of chaos. He didn't always react that way last season, when he recorded a .882 save percentage during an 11-start stretch from Feb. 15 through March 31. The difference, Ullmark said, is having played 76 games in the National Hockey League.
"A lot of things come from experience. I’m in my second year on this level and goaltending is so much about experience and routines," he said. "Whenever you play a lot you can see a lot of situations develop and it’s easier to make a read, which is why it looks and feels like the goalie is so composed. That’s what happens when you look at guys like Carey Price or Pekka Rinne or all the elite goalies. They always look composed because they know what’s going on in front of them. They've seen that situation develop like 20,000 times."
Ullmark stood tall during a second-period Leafs power play, covering enough of the short side to force Nylander to hit the post. Moments later, Eichel exited the penalty box and tied the score, 2-2, during a 2 on 1.
Casey Mittelstadt and Victor Olofsson also scored in the second period, pushing the Sabres' lead to 4-2. They managed to improve to 11-0 this season when leading after two periods, however, defensive lapses caused coach Ralph Krueger to describe the third period as "stressful."
Dmytro Timashov cut the Sabres' lead to one with a shot from atop the left-wing circle with 13:10 remaining in regulation. Jimmy Vesey scored for the third time in as many games to make it 5-3, only for Kapanen to score on a backdoor pass from Nic Petan.
"It’s a tough league to go out and perform every night," Ullmark said. "I personally didn’t think I played a very strong game today. I probably could have done a lot more for my boys to keep that third and fourth one out of the net. ... Sometimes you have to say thank you for the coffee and tip your hat to the guys that scored the goal and sometimes you have to kick yourself in the butt and say that’s enough and be better."
The Sabres' defensive-zone coverage broke down at times during a late Leafs barrage in the third period. Auston Matthews managed to retrieve the puck in the left-wing circle with no one around him while Toronto had an extra attacker, but the center's shot was stopped by Ullmark with 1:36 remaining.
Eichel then gave the Sabres an empty-netter insurance goal to help them take over third place in the Atlantic Division. Krueger has not named Ullmark his starting goalie and was quick to include Carter Hutton during his postgame news conference.
Ullmark is not taking this recent stretch for granted, though. He planned on meeting with goaltending coach Mike Bales on Saturday morning in Toronto to analyze what went wrong on the third-period goals against the Leafs and experience has taught him the importance of consistency.
"It’s definitely been a test for him," Krueger said of Ullmark. "We like the way he’s growing through the experience. I think it’s one he’s ready for, and we’ll continue to work with the pair of Ullmark and Hutton, but at the moment Linus has had some responsibility. We look at his last couple of wins, he’s been tested at critical phases. We’ve left guys alone in front and he’s had to make big saves. I thought it was a special win for him tonight."