BUFFALO – Amid all the chaos that materialized around him, Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark calmly moved around his crease, making save after save in Tuesday’s thrilling 5-4 shootout victory.
Right now, having allowed 39 goals over the last nine contests, the Sabres are a mess defensively. So Ullmark can be forgiven for allowing four goals.
Ullmark still stopped 41 shots and all three shootout attempts against the Minnesota Wild, securing just the Sabres’ third win in nine tries.
From the get-go Tuesday, Ullmark, as he has so often this season, looked like a difference-maker, regularly bailing out his teammates and instilling confidence.
Ullmark, 25, has been wrestling starts away from the struggling Carter Hutton. Expect the Swede to keep earning more action down the stretch.
“He was really good,” said Sabres center Evan Rodrigues, whose power-play goal opened the scoring 4:31 into the tilt. “He’s got such a calming effect back there. He’s always in position, he doesn’t reach for pucks.
“Even in the shootout, you never see him slide out of the crease or anything. He’s very steady in his net. He always has so much fun with the game that he’s able to make those windmill saves.”
The Sabres would’ve endured a heartbreaking loss before the crowd of 16,847 inside KeyBank Center if Ullmark wasn’t at the top of the game.
They blew three leads, including a two-goal advantage in the second period. Zach Parise scored the tying goal with an extra attacker on with 1:37 left in regulation before winger Sam Reinhart’s shootout goal won it.
The more the Sabres talk about cleaning up defensively, the worse they seem to get.
“We’ve been focusing on that, just tighten it up, and there’s times in the game that you got to really be smart and not beat yourselves,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said. “Tonight, we beat ourselves but Linus played outstanding, really attacked the game. He really charging out to pucks and fighting through traffic. He didn’t give them a lot of opportunities.”
Reinhart said: “It seems like Linus and Hutts, every game we play they’re making five or six big, big stops for us. As important as that is in this league to win hockey games, we feel as the guys skating around the ice that we’ve got to do a better job limiting that.”
After Reinhart scored in third round of the shootout, Ullmark stopped Parise but appeared to get hit in the head on the play.
Ullmark said he had no clue what happened.
“I feel fantastic, a win, 5-4, absolutely awesome,” Ullmark said.
The win was critical for the Sabres, who played the second contest of a seven-game home stand.
If they enjoy a success stint here, they’ll like stay in the playoff race or jump back into a spot. If they falter, they could fall out. They’re three points out of the Eastern Conference’s final spot.
“We can’t be taking any relief out of anything right now,” said Reinhart, who recorded a goal and two points. “The schedule’s so important for us. The games are kind of winding down in a hurry and we know how important every game is. We’ve got to play with a playoff atmosphere and take advantage of that every night.”
The Sabres took advantage of the Wild early, going up 3-1 after winger C.J. Smith and defenseman Rasmus Dahlin (power play) scored in the second period.
Housley’s new lines, defense pairs and power play units seemed to be paying dividends.
But the Wild tied it before the second period ended thanks to Jared Spurgeon’s second score and Charlie Coyle’s goal. Reinhart put the Sabres up again in the third period.
“That’s a time to just really lock it down (the lead) and keep a simple game,” Housley said. “I thought we were try to get four and not in the right way.”
He added: “We’ve got to learn to tighten it up, but I’ll give the guys credit in the third period. We found a way to win. Even though we gave up that five-on-six goal, I liked our overtime and we found a way to win the shootout.”
By the third period, Housley scrapped some of his new line combinations. Most notably, he put his two NHL All-Stars, 31-goal winger Jeff Skinner and slick center Jack Eichel, back together.