(Audio version below if you don't feel like reading because reading means your brain has to do more stuff)
Linus Ullmark has something that no Sabres goalie has had since the days of Ryan Miller: A winning record. High hopes for Ullmark seemed dashed after a 4-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 24, but since then, Ullmark has allowed only two goals in two games and is carrying a .966 save percentage into the three day break. Those of you who have been following my writing know that I was high on Ullmark last season during prospects camp. He spent most of last year in Europe, until an injury required double hip surgery. The recovery took him to this season’s doorstep, so I didn’t anticipate he’d see much NHL time this year. After an injury to Robin Lehner and the tragically inept play of Sabres’ backup Chad Johnson, Ullmark got the nod, and now the Sabres are riding high on what some people are calling a ‘winning-streak.’
Ullmark’s play hasn’t been pretty. It’s not technically efficient. It’s not your standard reverse VH, a variation of the butterfly popularized by European goaltenders. It’s floppy and it’s sloppy. Ullmark seems out of position as much as he does in position. But Buffalo is used to that, right? I seem to recall Buffalo was home to another Euro netminder that had a slightly unorthodox, very exciting style…
I’m not naming names, and I’m not making comparisons, really. The two are obviously worlds apart at this point. I’m not predicting cup runs or the President’s Trophy. I am, however, saying that it is OK to be excited about hockey again. The team seems to finally be clicking – everyone appears to be on the same page. For several seasons, the Sabres have hosted players, but for the first time in a long time, the First Niagara Center is home to a hockey TEAM; a complete unit of players with a strategy and a system and the skill and talent to understand the system, to play with a strategy, and to develop a winning hockey team.
And then there’s the goaltending. As news of Lehner’s injury began to spread, speculation that the Sabres were chasing a goaltender had hockey trade rumor sites lit up like a christmas tree. Several western conference teams were said to be in the mix – waiving a goalie here, looking to trade there, but Sabres’ GM Tim Murray wisely kept his finger off of the trigger. In the end, another move for another mediocre goalie did nothing to better the Sabres situation – it would serve to satiate the headline-starved social media hounds, but it would not put the Sabres in a better position to win this season. Anything short of a home-run slug for a premier goaltender was pointless, and this early in the season, those goalies are not available.
It is reported that there was one man who kept Murray’s cold, dead stare off of the likes of Calgary’s Ramo and focused a little closer to home. Following the team’s second consecutive win, WGR550’s Brian Koziol tweeted, “Bylsma says his intrigue on what they had in Ullmark was the reason he and Tim Murray haven’t looked elsewhere for a goalie.” It appears that what they had was a goalie that the team was prepared to rally around. Despite Bylsma’s perpetual juggling of the lines, the team has developed a modicum of chemistry, with scoring coming from virtually all lines, and strong defense coming from all pairs. Well, most…*cough*Mike Weber*AHEM* Sorry. Clearing my throat…
Ullmark has enraptured the coach and the GM, rallied the team behind him, and has the fans excited for Sabres hockey once again. Ryan O’Reilly is tied for fifth in scoring. Sam Reinhart is coming out of his shell. Jack Eichel is Eicheling it up all over the ice – he’s not scoring as much as some of his rookie counterparts, but he is one of the smartest, strongest players on the ice, and Buffalo is very lucky to have him. Contributions from lesser offseason acquisitions are meeting or exceeding expectations. Buffalo’s cold start is giving way to the warm hope that the city hasn’t felt in years. It’s been a long, treacherous path for the tank, but it appears that we can finally retire that horrifying war machine, and gaze upon the renewed team that stands on the once-desolate Buffalo ice.