Perhaps only Robin Lehner knew what to expect from himself heading into last night's game against the Montreal Canadiens. Lehner was pulled in his last game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday after giving up three goals on 16 shots and wasn't happy about it. As he left the Air Canada Center ice in favor of backup Anders Nilsson, he said something to his coach then proceeded to take out his frustrations on his equipment, most notably his goalie mask, and unleash his death stare.
All the right words were said the next two days between games with Lehner saying he was upset because he's a competitor and Bylsma in turn stating that a pulled goalie should be upset. Lehner was on the bench for Friday's home game against the Detroit Red Wings as Bylsma went with Nilsson's 5-1-1 home record with a sparkling 1.84 goals-against average and .948 save percentage. It worked. Not without drama, however, as the Sabres came from behind to win the game with :26 seconds left in overtime.
Lehner faced the unenviable task of starting against the top team in the division after getting pulled his previous start. Not only were the Canadiens comfortably ahead by 10 points in the division, but 200' from Lehner stood one of the best goalies in the league in Montreal's Carey Price. Add in that the Sabres already weakened defense-corps sustained another blow with the loss of No. 2 d-man Jake McCabe in the Detroit game of Friday, and their top d-man, Rasmus Ristolainen, was coming off of a 35 minute game the previous night, and odds weren't in Buffalo's favor.
Everything was set for Lehner and the Sabres to fail, but he didn't fail his team and his team came through.
Lehner looked calm, cool and collected in net for Buffalo early on and after the Sabres fell behind 2-1, he made numerous saves to keep it close until defenseman Cody Franson tied the score 11:53 into the third period. And then there was this "Save of the Year" candidate in overtime (via sabres.com):
That was huge and he actually managed to outshine Price who had received a standing ovation for completely robbing Ristolainen with 6.3 seconds left in regulation with this stop (via HabsTV):
Of all the whipping boys on this team, Lehner has consistently gotten the most grief. No matter what he does, someone will find something wrong with his play or how he ended up in Buffalo. It's either he's not good enough despite his solid numbers or he just doesn't look like a true No. 1 goalie and if all else fails the fall-back barb comes in the form of the first round pick GM Tim Murray gave up for him.
He's in a no win situation for a lot of fans, similar to what Ryan Miller went through when he was in Buffalo, but for one night at least, the hecklers and negative Nancy's were kept at bay as he without a doubt stole this one for the Sabres.
Also on the list of top whipping boys these days is defenseman Zach Bogosian who came to Buffalo in Evander Kane/Tyler Myers blockbuster trade in February, 2014.
Bogosian plays a big, heavy game who's flaws include giving up a scoring opportunity after missing on a big check. With the game hitting another gear over the past two seasons, Bogosian has struggled to match that gear despite his wheels and at times he looks more like a muscle car in a Formula-1 race. It's not his fault for that, nor is it his fault that his time in Buffalo has been plagued by injuries and with every injury it seems like it takes him weeks to get up to speed.
But what's been forgotten and/or lost in his inconsistent play on an inconsistent team is one of the attributes that made him the fourth-overall pick in the 2008 NHL Draft--his shot--and he uncorked one last night that just blew by one of the best goalies in the league (via sabres.com):
Ping! In off the post, blocker side for his first of the season. Bogosian finished with the goal and was a plus-1 in 25:12 of work last night. Perhaps this will get
At on time Kane was the preeminent whipping boy on the Sabres as injuries, sketchy production and off-ice issues made him reviled and a rumored trade-bait candidate for anyone who had a bag of pucks to offer.
Kane was injured in the season opener against these same Canadiens and came back from four broken ribs to an 11-game goal-less drought. One would think he wasn't fully healed as he wasn't playing his powerforward game then beginning December 3, Kane started heating up. He has 12 goals in his last 23 games, 11 of them at even strength which places him near the top of the league in that category during that stretch.
Although he didn't score last night, he and linemate Zemgus Girgensons did the dirty work on Brian Gionta's goal.
Girgensons and Gionta are two other players who've been on the crap list for Buffalo fans. It was rather easy to hate on Girgensons as the former first-rounder has struggled mightily with Bylsma's system, but the hate on 38 yr. old captain Gionta is very curious. In addition to his 10 goals (tied for third on the team) he makes his linemates better. Just ask Johan Larsson who was having his best season as a Sabre before being lost for the season, and Marcus Foligno who played so well on Gionta's line that he now skates alongside Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, two second-overall draft picks.
Kane finished with two assists last night and if you noticed in the Lehner video above, he was the player putting his body in front of Alex Galchenyuk's overtime shot.
Franson is another player that's been whipped about in Sabreland. Analytics fans go a bit easier on him while the eye-test often reveals a defenseman with a propensity for a brain fart that ends up in the back of the Sabres net. One thing both sides heartily agree upon is that Franson is slow. Very slow.
Yet last night he sent a seeing-eye shot through four players and past Price blocker side to tie the game at 2-2. It was Franson's second goal of the season and there was a little poetic justice involved.
Early in the third period Galchenyuk worked his way into the Buffalo zone with a head of steam. As he was trying to get around Franson, Galchenyuk got his stick up and butt-ended Franson in the face. Neither ref saw it and play went on with Franson obviously in pain with no penalty called.
Franson scored six minutes later and Galchenyuk was robbed in overtime by Lehner.
And finally, we can't forget Bylsma.
Bylsma has been vilified left and right for his tactics, especially late in the game when he "parks the bus" while trying to hold the lead. After Franson tied the game last night he put the Ryan O'Reilly-Tyler Ennis-Kyle Okposo line on the ice and had the Sabres playing on their toes which lead to a delay of game penalty less than two minutes later.
Although I still don't understand why Jack Eichel is on the point on the powerplay, especially on the right side when a goalie like Price has such a wicked glove, Bylsma's team has now won two games in a row, in overtime with a severely depleted defense-corps.
Playing Nilsson against the Wings at home and Lehner in Montreal after pulling him worked to perfection and the four points Buffalo earned got them out of the basement of the Atlantic Division.
Today the team has a day off before they get ready for Tuesday's tilt at Nashville against the Predators. Buffalo then heads to Dallas to take on the Stars in their last game before the All-Star break.
After the big win against Montreal, what will they do for an encore?