No one will ever accuse Buffalo Sabres goalie Robin Lehner of being complacent. His on-ice competitiveness is often found in a menacing, steel-eye stare-down that makes him look as if he'll bite your head off. And if there's any doubt that he sees himself not only as the team's No. 1 goalie but also a teammate, look no further than an incident in Columbus when defenseman Zach Bogosian was recklessly checked into the boards.
The Jackets' Boone Jenner was the culprit as he put a hook on Bogosian and slammed him into the boards. Lehner didn't take too kindly to it and as players on the ice began forming a scrum around his fallen teammate, Lehner cut off Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson who seemed intent upon joining the fray. The two began a spirited shoving match and the 6'5" 240 lb. Lehner dropped the gloves ready to go at it. Johnson wisely declined and instead tried to make his way into the scrum while officials moved Lehner back towards his crease.
Lehner called the Jenner hit on Bogosian "disgusting" saying post-game, "to see a teammate go down like that...at the end of the day I just didn't want [Johnson] to jump into the pile. It's a team game out there." Head coach Dan Bylsma said of the incident in the Sabres 4-0 win, "It’s the first time I had a goalie get four penalty minutes and the shutout. He may be the most engaged goalie I’ve ever been able to coach. He was certainly engaged tonight.”
Intensity is all well and good and it's something that was severely lacking during "The Core" years, but a goalie's job is to stop pucks and Lehner's numbers will tell you that he did so on a regular basis. When healthy.
That game against Columbus was somewhat of a microcosm of the season as Buffalo's goalies were peppered with shots-against all season. Lehner and backups Chad Johnson and Linus Ullmark faced over 2,500 shots combined last season, ninth-worst in the league. Some games the opposition was forced to the outside but other times, like the game against Columbus, many of them were high-quality shots thrown at the Buffalo netminders.
Lehner finished an injury-shortened first season in Buffalo with a 5-9-3 record a 2.47 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage. Both stats were pretty solid considering his off-season training regimen was limited while recovering from a concussion and he ended up missing half the season after suffering a high-ankle sprain in the very first game.
He had a shaky return to the ice against the Boston Bruins on January 15th but Lehner would proceed to put on five strong performances in a row thereafter. From January 20th to February 3rd Lehner started five games, faced a total of 188 shots and gave up two goals in each game (.946 sv%.) In those starts the team went 2-2-1 with Lehner getting his first win as a Sabre on January 26th when he defeated his former team, the Ottawa Senators, in Ottawa 3-2.
Things would get a bit dicey for Lehner as he was shelled the next few starts but he came back strong for a stretch that included the aforementioned game against Columbus. The wheels would fall off again and it was determined that his ankle was not fully healed. His season ended with surgery on March 30th.
Although we're not sure when his ankle problems resurfaced or whether or not his time away from the ice through the better part of 11 months caught up with him later in the season, the good we saw from Lehner was, at times, exceptionally good. He's a big man with an attitude who moves very well for a goalie his size. Sabres GM Tim Murray gave up a first round pick for a reason when he acquired Lehner from his former team and when he was on the ice Lehner performed pretty well.
Yet, there is one Achilles heal to his game--the shootout.
The last game of the five-game stretch mentioned earlier was at Boston and Sabres nemesis Brad Marchand was awarded a penalty shot in overtime. Lehner had only face one other penalty shot in his career and was 0-1. After Marchand was finished schooling him, Lehner was 0-2. He wasn't much better in the shootout last year for Buffalo as he gave up four goals on six shots in two games with the Sabres losing both.
How that plays out this coming season and for the rest of his career, however, is yet to be determined but one would hope that the 25 yr. old Lehner will slowly build confidence in that area to the point where the steel-eye stare he uses during play will send a chill through the oncoming shooter.
Lehner went into last season as the team's No. 1 goalie although backup Chad Johnson used his play to make a pretty strong case that he should be considered a No. 1 goalie. Johnson has since moved on from Buffalo and the Sabres acquired Anders Nilsson from the St. Louis Blues to be the backup. Nilsson's numbers aren't anywhere near Johnson's so there's no doubt who's No. 1 in Buffalo.
Whether Lehner is healthy or not will go a long way in determining how his second season as a member of the Buffalo Sabres goes. He's in the last year of his entry-level contract and he has Ullmark, who performed very well in his rookie campaign, pushing him. There's also the specter of the Sabres losing either one of them at the expansion draft as each team will only be allowed to protect one goalie.
Lehner opted out of the World Cup of Hockey with Team Sweden preferring to stay in Buffalo rehabbing and training for the upcoming season. It's an important one for him and the Sabres and he could be the difference between Buffalo making the playoffs or not. Pretty sure Sabres fans would love to see him glaring down the opposition during the intensity of a playoff series.
Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster:
LW, Evander Kane/ C, Ryan O'Reilly/ RW, Kyle Okposo
D, Rasmus Ristolainen/ D, Dmitry Kulikov
G, Robin Lehner