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Inside the NHL: Linus Ullmark piling up the numbers in Bruins' goal

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Sports Columnist

A News staffer since 1987, I'm a Baseball Hall of Fame voter, a 2013 inductee into the Buffalo Baseball HOF and the Buffalo chapter chair of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. And I insist only Chicago & New York can come close to Buffalo pizza.

Eric Comrie has had lots of positive moments and more than his share of tough ones in the Sabres' net thus far. Craig Anderson has been good but at 41 years old, you're just not getting more than a game a week from him. Maybe two. Meanwhile, the wait continues for Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen in Rochester or the college tandem of Devon Levi and Erik Portillo.

All the while, Linus Ullmark of the Boston Bruins entered Sunday leading the NHL in wins (10) and save percentage (.936), and was second in goals-against average (1.95). The Bruins lead the NHL in goals against (2.17) while the Sabres are 25th at 3.46. Did GM Kevyn Adams have the starting goaltender he needed in his own locker room and let him slip away?

It's easy to enter that revisionist history now, given how well Ullmark has played in helping the Bruins to the top of the Atlantic Division. Refresher: The Sabres were breaking up the band of their 31st-place team in 2021 and weren't willing to go four years and $20 million for Ullmark, who was good here but had injury troubles and never played more than 37 games in a season.

Not many other teams were going that far on Ullmark either, but Boston did and he jumped at his chance. He's rewarded the Bruins by going 36-11-2 in his two seasons. Ullmark didn't play here Saturday but beat the Sabres all three times he met them last season.

"What strikes me is his maturity, mentally and physically. I think he knows now how to prepare his body," said Boston coach Jim Montgomery. "All I know is what I've what I've had, which is an excellent goalie in his preparation, and especially his ability mentally to rise to the occasion at big moments. I think our defensive play has really come to the forefront here in our last five to six games, but we've still given up some big-time chances. And he's there to make the big stops when we need those momentum saves."

"He's matured. He's such a good guy, and he's always had a good heart," said Boston winger Taylor Hall, who played with Ullmark in Buffalo. "I think his work ethic has continued to improve. Being around a team like this, everyone's improves. Even being 30 years old, mine improves being around a team like this. I think he's really benefited from our goalie coach (former NHLer Bob Essensa) and his preparation for games. He's rarely injured, where in Buffalo he had a few injuries so he's he's really cleaned up a lot of parts of his game and he seems like a really happy guy now."

Nowhere is that happiness more seen than during Ullmark's postgame hugs with goaltending partner Jeremy Swayman. Arms stretched wide, gloves and sticks high, a lean back and then a hug on the ice after the final horn. It's become a Bruins tradition after each win that fans roar for in TD Garden. But with Swayman hurt, veteran forward Nick Foligno has stepped in for "hockey hugs" with Ullmark.

"He just kind of looked at me after we beat Pittsburgh and I was like, 'I guess we're doing this,'" a laughing Foligno said Saturday. "I don't want to take over from 'Sway' and I can't wait for Sway to come back because it's way funnier when those two it. But if I could step in for the time being, that's what we do for each other in here.

"It was honestly just on a whim.  I usually give him the hug last before Sway and he kind of looked at me and did the little sign. I was like OK. I hope I did a good enough job. I think I've gotten better as the games have gone on. It's fun. I could see why they have a good time doing it."

Foligno said the Swayman-Ullmark tandem starts from their relationship off the ice and it translates to their play.

"Tandems are so important in the NHL right now and really boosts your team. You see how they genuinely care about how each other has success," Foligno said. "There's nothing forced there. It just kind of trickles through the whole room. It makes you really happy for either one when they're so excited to be the one hugging or getting hugged. Really neat thing, a really cool thing for our team to see. And hopefully we see a lot more of it."

As for the Sabres, this is a big week ahead in goal with a lighter schedule featuring games against Vancover, Ottawa and Toronto.

Comrie is 4-6, 3.62/.885 in 10 games while Anderson is 3-2, 2.40/.922 in five games. The split in workload is what the Sabres envisioned, the production from Comrie is not. Defense injuries or not, it's going to have to change. The Sabres have given up three or more goals for 10 consecutive games. The total is 24 goals in their five-game losing streak and you're not beating anyone giving up 4.8 per game.

Good news/bad news on roster

The Sabres loaned Kale Clague back to Rochester on Sunday morning, which is a good sign that Henri Jokiharju could be ready to play Tuesday night vs. Vancouver.

The team was off Sunday and returns to practice Monday. Jokiharju, who took a puck to the face early in the Oct. 20 win at Calgary, shed his noncontact jersey at Saturday's morning skate and was in a regular jersey.

The sense on captain Kyle Okposo, however, is his absence could be a multigame situation. Okposo is believed to be dealing with a lower-body injury after blocking a shot by Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore in the first period on Thursday.

"He's going to take a couple days before we can evaluate him," coach Don Granato said after Saturday's game. "It's going to be a few days of rest and then it will be day to day."

Some last words on Eichel

Boston's Hall, a Covid-year Sabre, was around for the difficult end of Jack Eichel's on-ice career with the Sabres, and said he was happy to see his former teammate ring up his third-period hat trick Thursday night.

"Jack and I, through the (lousy) year that it was, became really good friends and we still are," Hall said prior to Saturday's game here. "I mean, he was on my bachelor party this summer. We talk a lot and, I don't want this to come off wrong, but I was really happy for him the other night because that is a mountain to climb for him personally, to come back and have a good game like that in Buffalo.

"I'm happy for him as a friend. Obviously, Buffalo fans probably have a lot of vitriol for him, and I don't know if that's deserved or not, but I think it seems like both sides have come away from it OK. And that's a good thing.”

Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy wasn't with the Golden Knights in March for Eichel's first return. After Thursday's game, Cassidy admitted he was surprised at the level of hostility toward his star from Buffalo fans. Memo: That diss from Eichel after the March game will live forever.

"My guess is he took a lot of pride in his work when he was here and it just didn't it didn't work out," Cassidy said. "It's working out well for us and we're happy to have him. I can only imagine that it's tough on him. He's got friendships here and I talked to him about that. He has good friends on this team still playing here, and I'm sure people outside of the organization too when you're here that long.

"I'm happy for Jack. Obviously the fans are allowed to voice their displeasure as they see fit. I'd prefer they channel their energy towards their own really good young players here that are coming, but at the end of the day, that is what it is."

Positive signs at the gate

The Sabres have to be encouraged by Saturday night's sellout crowd of 19,070, the first of the season. And they expect big houses for the Nov. 23 game against St. Louis (90s Night/return of the goathead) and Nov. 25 against New Jersey (annual Black Friday game).

The Sabres remain 30th in the NHL in attendance at 13,458 per game through nine home dates, ahead of only New Jersey (12,950). I'm not counting Arizona, which is playing in 5,000-seat Mullett Arena.

But the Sabres are far ahead of last year's first dates nine dates, when they averaged a paltry 7,993. Even with the border restrictions that kept Canadian fans away at the start of last season, a 41% jump in tickets sold is still a significant increase in one year.

More Sabre points

• Gilbert Perreault turned 72 on Sunday and the Sabres' greatest living skater lost another teammate from the 1975 Stanley Cup final squad with last week's death of Peter McNab at 70. McNab, a longtime broadcaster for Colorado, had been battling cancer since August 2021, but had been in remission as of February and was on the ice doing interviews after the Avs' Stanley Cup win in June at Tampa Bay. McNab played for the Sabres for three seasons and had 22 goals for the '74-75 team before he was traded to Boston and played the bulk of his career.

Now gone from the '75 club in addition to McNab are Perreault's French Connection linemates, Rick Martin and Rene Robert; as well as Roger Crozier, Fred Stanfield, Brian Spencer, Norm Gratton and Larry Mickey. 

• Another member of the Sabres' '75 team, defenseman Lee Fogolin, joined former Edmonton forward Ryan Smyth last week in being named into the inaugural class of the Oilers Hall of Fame. The group also included all the franchise's big names from the '80s who had previously had their numbers retired. Fogolin, now 67, was Buffalo's No. 1 pick in 1974 and played 50 games in '74-75. He was with the Sabres for five years before moving to Edmonton for eight seasons and served as Oilers captain in 1983 before turning the reins to Wayne Gretzky.

• Can we stop talking about the Sabres' loss to Arizona as if it should have been a home gimme? Has anybody noticed the Coyotes also have wins over Toronto, Florida, Washington and the New York Islanders?

• Early in the season, Devils fans were chanting "Fi-re Lin-dy" in the Prudential Center at Lindy Ruff. Now the Devils are 12-3 and have won nine straight for the first time since 2007. What did they chant in Newark during Saturday's win over Arizona? "Sor-ry Lindy. Sor-ry Lindy".

Cracked Ruff: "I accept the apology. Someday, us (the coaching staff) and the fans are going to sit down and have a beer and laugh about that one."

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Sports Columnist

A News staffer since 1987, I'm a Baseball Hall of Fame voter, a 2013 inductee into the Buffalo Baseball HOF and the Buffalo chapter chair of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. And I insist only Chicago & New York can come close to Buffalo pizza.

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