Looking at the Sabres’ season so far, I think most reasonable fans would think that the team and its players are pretty much performing as expected. Eichel, while prone to streaky play, has demonstrated that he can be a force and was worth every loss last season. The same can be said about Reinhart, who has come to life in the last few games, when Bylsma finally allowed him to settle into a consistent line. O’Reilly is exactly what we thought he’d be – a dynamic leader on and off of the ice, with the ability to break a game open, as demonstrated last night in Detroit. Kane is Kane. Strong play (bordering on a bit dirty,) and can score at will…when he wills it. Risto is a star, and anyone paying attention knew he would be. McGinn, while an afterthought at the time of the trade, has shown that his 2013-2014 season was not a fluke, and may be headed to 40 points for the first time in his career.
What is perhaps most surprising so far this season has been the goaltending. When the newly acquired Robin Lehner went down with an odd ankle injury he suffered in Game 1 of the season, the collective groan from Sabres fans resounded off of the now-crowded buildings of the cobblestone district. Behind Lehner was perennial disappointment, Chad Johnson, whose career numbers are somewhere between mediocre and downright awful, has not been as terrible as one may have predicted he’d be going into the season. Johnson appears to have some trouble working through consecutive games, but given a proper rest, he has flashes of brilliance, such as shown in Monday’s tilt with the Detroit Red Wings. After allowing one goal that was completely not his fault, Johnson came up big throughout the game, but especially late, making two straight saves on Pavel Datsyuk, and one AMAZING save on Nyquist that would have tied the game with 20 seconds left.
I’ve already gushed about Linus Ullmark, who has disproved every misconception I had about the kid since he got the call-up in early October. In the offseason, I said he was a year away from being NHL ready. I was wrong. As the season approached, I said he wouldn’t be ready for gameplay because of his double-hip surgery. I was wrong. When he was brought up to spell Johnson, I said he’d get some game experience, but probably wouldn’t help the team much. I was so wrong. Ullmark has indeed made his mark on the team. The team secured 12 points in Ullmark’s 13 starts, and his save percentage is exactly on par with his more seasoned counterpart at .911. Ullmark may not be blowing away the competition for the spot yet, but the kid has proven he can play, and with a long career ahead of him, is sure to develop into a quality goaltender.
Expectations of Lehner’s return rose late last week when he took the ice along with his fellow backstops, but Sportsnet.ca reported on Sunday that Lehner experienced a setback during that skate and may not return to action until mid-January. Lehner ended up here in Buffalo after losing his starting job to Andrew Hammond, who carried the Ottawa Senators into the playoffs while Lehner recovered from an injury. The oft-injured netminder will get his shot once he’s back – especially given the price that Murray paid for him, but I am again reiterating my concern that Lehner isn’t the answer in net. He may be the best we’ve got now, but long-term, we’ll need someone better back there.
Watching the Sabres this year is like watching a young bird learn how to fly. You know eventually they’ll get it figured out, but in the meantime, their struggles are a little sad and frustrating. There may be some solace in the fact that once Lehner went down, our hopes for any success this season faded immediately, but for now, at least, Johnson and Ullmark are playing well enough to keep us in almost every game we take the ice for. In the immortal words of the Monty Python crew, “Some things in life are bad - they can really make you mad. Other things just make you swear and curse. When you're chewing on life's gristle, don't grumble, give a whistle. This'll help things turn out for the best...” So give Linus and Ocho a whistle, and think of how great it will be when this fledgling team finally learns to fly.