Linus Ullmark was bored while having to stay in Buffalo for the first three games of an 0-4 road trip that ended the Sabres' playoff hopes.
Ullmark was not accustomed to missing time during the season and established himself as the starting goalie prior to suffering a lower-body injury Jan. 28.
The time away did not seem to affect Ullmark in his return to the ice Monday night in KeyBank Center. He stopped six of seven shootout attempts and 33 shots over 35 minutes to help the Sabres snap a six-game losing streak with a 3-2 win over the Washington Capitals.
Dominik Kahun scored the deciding goal with a backhanded shot over Braden Holtby's left leg pad in the seventh shootout round after Buffalo (30-31-8) blew a two-goal lead in the third period.
Jack Eichel and Victor Olofsson also broke out of their respective scoring slumps with goals in regulation. However, Ullmark's performance stood above the rest.
"You want to be with the team, you want to be in the mix," Ullmark said after improving to 17-14-3 this season. "You want to be there and do what you do best. Obviously you can’t buy the feeling of winning, so it was great to get the first win here."
Ullmark's resolve against one of the top teams in the National Hockey League provided the Sabres with an encouraging sign during a dismal stretch. His acrobatics in goal also showed how much he was missed during the injury absence.
After beginning the season as the Sabres' backup, Ullmark emerged in November as the team's unquestioned starter. At the time of the injury, Ullmark's .915 save percentage in 23 games dating back to Nov. 24 ranked third in the NHL behind Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy and Pittsburgh's Tristan Jarry, both of whom represented their respective divisions at the All-Star Game in St. Louis. Ullmark also led all NHL goalies in ice time (1,361:57) during that span, starting 25 of 30 games for Buffalo.
Carter Hutton won five of six games to help the Sabres re-enter the periphery of a playoff race, encouraging General Manager Jason Botterill to add veteran power forward Wayne Simmonds at the trade deadline Feb. 24.
However, Hutton and Jonas Johansson, who was assigned to Rochester on Friday, combined for the NHL's 23rd-best 5-on-5 save percentage from Feb. 24 through the 3-1 loss to Philadelphia on Saturday.
Though the Sabres' playoff hopes all but ended with an 0-4 road trip West – Ullmark joined the team in Winnipeg to practice prior to the final game 0150 they were in desperate need of an outstanding performance Monday night. The Capitals (41-20-8) are first in the Metropolitan Division, rank second in the NHL in goals and entered the game with a 23-10-2 record away from Washington.
The Sabres, meanwhile, had scored two or fewer goals in seven straight games, managing only 10 goals during their six-game skid.
"We stuck with it, so real proud of the guys to get the win here today," coach Ralph Krueger said. "It’s been tough sledding of late. We aren't getting anything for free. We knew to get this first win in the hole we’ve been in wasn’t going to be easy, but we didn’t think it would be this hard."
The Sabres made it more difficult on themselves and received some bad luck.
Olofsson scored his 20th goal of the season and first in nine games with a wrist shot from the right faceoff dot at 4:53 into the first period. Eichel then snapped his seven-game point drought with his 36th goal of the season for a 2-0 lead 53 seconds into the second period.
Eichel ended the Sabres' 0-for-17 power-play slump with a wrist shot from the left circle after Rasmus Dahlin baited Holtby into dropping down to a butterfly at the other post. Dahlin recorded his 35th and 36th assists in his 59th game, surpassing his total from his 82-game rookie season.
Buffalo entered the second intermission with a 2-0 lead and was 22-1 when leading after two periods. Washington, though, had scored a league-best 93 goals, 29 more than the Sabres, in the third period this season.
Alex Ovechkin trimmed the deficit to one at 3:33 into the third period when he collected the puck off a Capitals faceoff win and stick handled around Kyle Okposo before firing a wrist shot on net.
Washington tied the game with 6:49 remaining in regulation on a Dmitry Orlov shot that ricocheted off Rasmus Ristolainen's skate and into the net.
"I thought we sat on our heels a little too much and got away from our game," Eichel said after the Sabres were outshot 16-5 in the third period.
The Sabres appeared to take the lead with 2:48 regulation on a Brandon Montour wrist shot from the high slot, but it was ruled no goal on the ice because the official quickly determined Jeff Skinner interfered with Holtby.
"It was very frustrating to experience," Krueger said. "We went through that with Pittsburgh just a few days ago the other way, and I think when something is outside the crease like that and it’s questionable, there shouldn’t be a call on the ice. It should be called a goal and then they can go review it or not because it was a very, very, very soft, questionable call."
Ullmark ensured the Sabres would earn at least one point by delivering a pad save with 1:35 remaining when Ilya Kovalchuk unleashed a one-timer from the slot. Ullmark then stopped consecutive chances in overtime, including an Ovechkin shot from the slot.
Though Evgeny Kuznetsov's wrist shot in the fourth shootout round prevented Dahlin's marker from ending the game, Ullmark delivered a save on Richard Panik in the seventh round to clinch the win.
During the shootout, Ullmark also stopped Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom and Jakub Vrana.
"We had the last shot and we didn't use it," Ovechkin lamented.
The final 13 games will allow the Sabres to spoil other teams' playoff standing and assess the roster for next season. Krueger's new-look lineup – featuring a top line of Skinner, Eichel and Sam Reinhart – played well through two periods Monday. Kahun also has proven to be a valuable addition since he arrived from Pittsburgh following the trade deadline.
And the ascent of Ullmark, a pending restricted free agent, bodes well for the Sabres' ability to solve the problem in net that's plagued them since Ryan Miller's departure.
"He made some big saves, and I think he had great rebound control, which is big," Skinner said of Ullmark. "Especially against this team. They have some skilled guys and they’ve got some guys who can roll around. They can create some havoc in front of your net and he was real calm all night. Obviously in the shootout he was huge. He played a great game for us."