Wednesday, March 21, 2018

It's new papa Linus Ullmark vs. Vezina candidate Pekka Rinne in goal tonight

Published by, 3-19-2018

Buffalo Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark was recalled from the Rochester Americans on March 13. Two days later he was off to be with his wife, Moa, for the birth of their first child whom they named, Harry. The next day Ullmark was back on the ice at KeyBank Center and told the gathered media  that he and the wife were "on Cloud Nine" and that he was "looking forward if I ever get to start a game." The Sabres played the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday and Ullmark was Chad Johnson's backup in Buffalo's 5-3 win.

The chance Ullmark has been looking forward to comes tonight as the Sabres take on the league's best team in the Nashville Predators lead by goalie Pekka Rinne, who may be the leading Vezina candidate at this point in the season. It's a tall order for Ullmark and an equally tall order for a 30th-place Sabres team that's struggled for most of the season.

As of late, however, Buffalo has been playing better going 5-3-1 over there last nine games which includes wins over division-foes Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto plus their matinee win over Chicago on Saturday. It was the first time they'd beaten the Blackhawks since December 11, 2009 (0-9-3.)

So things are looking up for the Sabres as of late. Center Jack Eichel has returned to the lineup to join forwards Ryan O'Reilly and Sam Reinhart, both of whom picked up the slack in his absence. Rookie Nicolas Baptiste scored a pair of goals on tips versus the Hawks while he and his linemates, center Evan Rodrigues and winger Justin Bailey, gave Chicago fits as Buffalo's third line.

However, goaltending has been a bone of contention for Buffalo, mainly when Robin Lehner is in the crease. During that nine game stretch Lehner went 1-2-1, allowing four goals in his losses and three goals in his one win. Lehner's goals-against average has ballooned to 2.93 this season and his save percentage has dropped to .911, numbers he hasn't seen since his days in Ottawa.

Ullmark has played in only one game this season and he stopped 44 of 45 shots for the win against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The 24 yr. old native of Lugnvik, Sweden has been plying his trade in Rochester and is being mentioned as the team MVP once again after winning the honor last season. As it was last season, Ullmark has been facing a lot of rubber in Rochester (1,299 shots agasinst, second most in the league,) but has managed to hold the fort with an AHL seventh-best save percentage of .923. Ullmark's 2.44 goals-against presently ranks 12th in the league.

Across the ice some 200' away, Rinne stands tall, not only physically with his 6'5" 217 lb. frame, but also in stature across the league. The 35 yr. old Finn has anchored this team since the 2008-09 season when he and perennial All-Star defenseman Shea Weber and Ryan Suter formed a Bermuda Triangle that snuffed the opposition. Both d-men are long gone and it was thought that they, and a more defensive-minded style of play under former head coach Barry Trotz were keys to Rinne's success. However, Rinne is proving once again that he's one of the top goalies in the league if not the top one.

Rinne's 2.25 gaa is second only to the Las Vegas Golden Knights' Marc-Andre Fleury (2.20) for goalies who've appeared in 40 or more games and his .929 sv% ties him with Fleury for tops in the league by goalies who've appeared in 40 or more games. And he's doing so in a an attacking system that has the defense flying up ice and joining the rush.

Buffalo Sabres head coach Phil Housley helped bring that system to life in his four years as an assistant coach in Nashville. Housley, a Hall of Fame defenseman who was drafted by Buffalo out of high school in 1982 transformed his d-corps into the most dangerous group in the playoffs last season and came within two wins of the Stanley Cup.

Housley also made the jump from high school coach to NHL assistant coach when he joined the Predators in 2013 and became Buffalo's head coach last off season.

This will be the first time Housley and his Sabres will face off against his former team.

The Predators were the first team to clinch a playoff spot and haven't lost in regulation in their last 14 games (13-0-1, with backup goalie Juuse Saros getting the shootout loss. They also have points in every road game since a January 2 regulation loss in Las Vegas (11-0-3) and are riding a seven-game road winning streak.

One might say that this Nashville team is hot.

Reports from the rink have this as Buffalo's starting lineup this evening:



--Justin Bailey was recalled from Rochester after being sent down to serve his one-game AHL suspension.
--Kyle Okposo returns to the lineup after missing the last three games with a concussion.
--Johnson will be the backup for Buffalo tonight.
--This is Game-4 of Buffalo's present six-game homestand. They're 1-1-1 so far.

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