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Linus Ullmark not dwelling on mistakes in starter role for Sabres

NASHVILLE – When a goal against during his time in Rochester left Linus Ullmark seething, he entered the dressing room at the intermission and asked the Amerks' video coach, Kyle Smith, to show him a replay.

Watching the sequence only added to Ullmark's frustration.

"It was so unnecessary," Ullmark recalled following practice Friday afternoon in Bridgestone Arena. "I couldn’t change it. It was still going to be a goal."

The moment opened Ullmark's eyes to the pitfalls of over-analyzing. Ullmark, 26, rarely peers up at the scoreboard after allowing a goal for the Buffalo Sabres. Any video study is saved for the following day. He has developed an ability to quickly forget about a mistake until it's time to address any technical hiccup with his goaltending coach, Mike Bales.

Ullmark has always had the physical tools to be an NHL goalie. However, achieving a strong grasp on the mental aspect of the position has allowed Ullmark to solidify himself as the Sabres' starter.

"Every game is a new experience," Ullmark added. "To be able to play all these games has also been about getting experiences. Putting those in your toolbox and having them in your next game, trying to learn something new from all these different situations. No game is the same. ... You can’t take anything from granted in this league, especially as a goalie. If you’re not humble before the game and during the game, they’re going to beat you a couple times extra. It’s about being patient and being focused through 60 minutes. So far it’s going pretty well."

The Sabres (22-19-7) are benefiting from Ullmark's maturation. Entering Friday, Ullmark's .914 save percentage since Nov. 24 ranked third in the NHL behind Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy and Pittsburgh's Tristan Jarry.

During that span, Ullmark led all NHL goalies in minutes played – almost 42 more than Vasilevskiy – and allowed more than four goals only once. Ullmark has started 21 of the Sabres' past 24 games, by far his largest NHL workload since he debuted with the team Oct. 24, 2015.

Ullmark has played 64.3 percent of the Sabres' minutes this season – on pace for the most by any Buffalo goalie since Robin Lehner (69 percent) in 2016-17 – including 74.2 percent since Nov. 1. For context, if Ullmark maintained the latter pace for the duration of the season, he would appear in 60 games.

He's only six appearances away from matching the career-high 37 games he played for the Sabres in 2018-19, a season in which he admittedly struggled to handle the mental exhaustion that comes with chaotic NHL travel.

Ullmark went 1-9-1 with an .882 save percentage from Feb. 15 through March 21. One regrettable sequence hasn't spiraled into a difficult stretch this season. Since allowing five goals in a 6-5 loss to Tampa Bay on Dec. 31, Ullmark has a .929 save percentage while winning five of his last six starts. He allowed two or fewer goals in five of those games.

"He’s been playing great," Sabres winger Jimmy Vesey said of Ullmark. "I think he’s gaining confidence. Maybe he’s adjusting to the workload. He’s been strong as of late and definitely a big presence on our team right now."

Finding solace away from the rink has helped Ullmark flourish. Moments after stepping off the ice Friday, he revealed that less uncertainty in his personal life has made him more comfortable at work. He and his wife, Moa, found a preschool for their 1-year-old son, Harry, and the couple finally feels settled in Buffalo.

Ullmark enjoyed the city while visiting for development camps or during his 20 games with the Sabres in 2015-16. However, it wasn't until last season that he was finally able to learn and explore the area. His family also found a home and neighborhood they enjoy.

Ullmark compared the experience to when he and Moa struggled to adjust to life in Rochester upon arriving from Sweden in 2015. He didn't feel completely comfortable there until his third season, when he had a .922 save percentage in 44 regular-season games.

"Things off the ice are a lot more calm," Ullmark said. "That really helped me this year. There’s not a lot of stuff going on. It’s about being a dad every day. I try to be as good of a dad as possible. There hasn’t been a lot of uncertainties or question marks regarding different things off the ice. ... All that sort of stuff fell into place this year. Not that it was bad last year, but it was a little different vibe to it. This year a lot of stuff has become better. It makes me feel more relaxed off the ice. If you’re relaxed off the ice it’s easier to come into the rink and try to perform every night because it’s stressful enough as it is."

There have been a few hiccups in Ullmark's play recently. He acknowledged Friday night that falling while attempting a glove save put him out of position on Jamie Benn's goal in the second period of a 4-1 win over the Dallas Stars.

Ullmark has also sprawled in and out of the crease during chaotic scrambles around the net. He isn't agonizing over those mistakes, though. A blend of conversations and video study with Bales has allowed Ullmark to clean up any technical deficiencies. Freelancing has always been part of Ullmark's game, but he's also adopted more structure through experience.

"I think Linus’ game is very much aligned with the team’s game," former NHL goalie Martin Biron, an analyst for MSG, said. "It’s not going to be a full, perfect 60 minutes. Sometimes you’ll revert to some old habits. I remember when he came in after the injury to Robin Lehner (in 2015-16) -- when Lehner had the high-ankle sprain -- and Linus was like a deer in the headlights. He was diving all over the place. ... Now Linus is not that same goalie anymore. He’s much more structured. He plays a much better game, but there are times where he ends up venturing out. ...  Obviously you’re always going to be nit-picking the details, but overall, I think there’s a lot of good that’s happening there."

The Sabres entered Friday five points behind Columbus and Carolina for the second wild-card playoff spot. Ullmark has helped keep Buffalo in the playoff chase while it awaits the return of Jeff Skinner and Victor Olofsson.

The heavy workload is unlikely to stop anytime soon. With the All-Star break looming and Carter Hutton struggling, Ullmark could start each of the Sabres' next six games. They don't have another back-to-back until Feb. 6-7.

Ullmark insisted he's not taking his responsibilities for granted, though. Hutton played a career-high 50 games for the Sabres last season, and coach Ralph Krueger has not hesitated to bench forwards or defensemen following a difficult performance.

Ullmark is handling that challenge by ignoring the past and focusing on the present.

"You don’t have to analyze every second or situation or shot or play with the puck," Ullmark said. "Take the good things and stick with it."

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