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Mike Harrington

Carter Hutton's massive struggles are simple: He needs to make more saves

Mike Harrington

VANCOUVER -- Carter Hutton wasn't angry Saturday. He's probably past that point. He seemed baffled. Hutton's tale of two seasons continued down a morbid path during the Buffalo Sabres' 6-5 overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks.

Hutton gave up maybe one truly bad goal in the game but wasn't able to make any of the bailout saves a team needs from its goaltender from time to time. You're just not going to win by stopping only 24 of 30 shots.

So that's nine straight losses -- 0-5-4 on your stat sheet -- for the guy who started the season as the Sabres' No. 1 goaltender and was 6-0 in his first six trips to the crease.

He's clearly not No. 1 anymore. That's Linus Ullmark's job now.

"At the end of the day, I've got to make saves. It's frustrating," Hutton said in the quiet Rogers Arena dressing room. "I don't want to make excuses by any means. I'm accountable for my actions and my play. I've played for a long time and battled thorugh a lot of things. One thing I don't doubt is my work ethic to come back and keep working hard and do what I can."

Over these nine games, Hutton has a 4.00 goals-against average and a sickly .875 save percentage. Go down the list of the last six starts and the struggles are eye-popping.

Five goals against Tampa Bay in Sweden. Five goals in an overtime loss to Carolina. Four in a loss at Chicago. Five in another loss at Tampa. Just two at Toronto and 41 saves -- but almost all wiped out by a glove flub of John Tavares' 35-footer in OT. Six more Saturday.

It's hard to comprehend given how the season started. Hutton was at 1.65/.943 for his first six games, and posted back-to-back shutouts against Dallas and Los Angeles by combining for 72 saves.

"I think sometimes I was a little bit of a product of our game too," he said. "Early on, we were playing really confident, playing really well, snapping it on the power play. We were getting a lot of run support too but as a goalie I can only control so much."

It should be noted that the Sabres have only scored 19 goals for Hutton in the nine games, with seven of the starts landing at two or less. That puts a lot of pressure on a goalie and Hutton hasn't been able to respond.

He got beat badly for the game's first goal Saturday by Canucks winger Josh Leivo, who broke down the right wing and burned Hutton clean from a bad angle in the circle. The fifth goal, by Antoine Roussel, came on a fat rebound.

"I got caught," Hutton admitted on the Leivo goal. "I was good to him and I think sometimes I need to trust myself a little more. I think I start thinking a little too much about back-door passes and plays moving and get myself a little unsquare."

Hutton now has to battle inactivity as the backup, a place he got accustomed to in Nashville and St. Louis. When he signed a three-year contract with a $2.75 million annual cap hit in July, 2018, Hutton thought Buffalo was his ticket to finally being an NHL starter at age 32.

Instead, he's back to his old days. Lots of time off. He's sat for 8, 5 and 7 days between his last three starts.

"I've played for a long time and this is obviously one of the tougher stretches in my career but Linus has been playing great and there's a reason why my starts have been spread out," Hutton said. "Linus has outplayed me and done his job and that's a good thing. All I can do is control my attitude and the way I come to work and try to get back in there."

The Sabres are in a tough spot here. They're paying Hutton through next season to be the starter, have Ullmark already in the house and are just biding time until prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen can become an NHL player. It seems unlikely they would try to go all Cory Schneider on Hutton and send him to the AHL while bringing up Andrew Hammond. GM Jason Botterill has made it clear he hates buyouts and paying veterans big money to rot in the minors.

And it should be noted that support for Hutton is universal in the Sabres' dressing room. Sam Reinhart may have sniped at him in February and quickly reversed his field the next day but there doesn't seem to be any similar undercurrent this year.

The Sabres feel they simply haven't played well enough in front of Hutton at times. While the first goal is a shot Hutton has to stop, there were too many odd-man rushes and uncovered players down low in this game. And the winning goal by J.T. Miller was a bar-down laser that blew up the water bottle in the back of the net.

"Listen, 'Hutts' is the ultimate battler, the ultimate competitor," said Kyle Okposo. "Nobody works harder than that guy on his game. He just wants to win and right now it's just not going his way. We have all the faith in him in the world. We've got two guys who can play back there but Hutts is a special person in this room."

"He competes every day, he's a pro. He comes to work," said captain Jack Eichel. "We've got to be better for him, whether it's get more offense going or whatever. He's got odd-man rushes coming at him. A lot of those goals, there's nothing he can do."

Coach Ralph Krueger said before the game that nobody on his team takes losses more personally than Hutton does.

"He needs to work hard and that's all we can do in this situation," Krueger said afterward. "He's been in a lot of close games ... When that kind of momentum works against an individual player, you just have to work with them to stay with his fundamentals."

Krueger defers a lot on goaltending to assistant coach Mike Bales and with good reason. Bales nurtured Matt Murray into a Stanley Cup champion in Pittsburgh and turned journeymen Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney into winners last year in Carolina.

Hutton might be giving Bales his biggest test yet.

"I know it's a thankless job sometimes being a goalie but it is what it is," Hutton said. "I have to take responsibility. I've just got to stick to it. We can go over film and I can watch every goal and at the end of the day, whether it was a perfect goal or wasn't a perfect goal, you've got to make saves."

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