Lehner, 25, was coming off a season in which a high ankle sprain dogged him and limited his action. Meanwhile, Nilsson, 26, had enjoyed little sustained success as a backup goalie for three other teams.
Right now, they’re quietly one of the league’s best duos entering this afternoon’s road tilt against the Washington Capitals.
In a season full of disappointments – injuries, meager offensive output and tight losses, to name a few – strong netminding from Lehner and Nilsson, who has subbed splendidly, has been one of the Sabres’ few constants at the one-quarter mark.
“Those guys have been amazing,” Sabres winger Marcus Foligno said Thursday following practice inside KeyBank Center. “So we feel like we’re in it every night.”
In fact, Lehner and Nilsson are probably the biggest reason the 7-8-5 Sabres, believe it or not, were only four points out of a Wild Card spot as of Thursday afternoon.
The goalies’ combined save percentage of .927 ranks third in the NHL, trailing only Minnesota and Montreal. Their combined 2.35 goals-against average ranks seventh.
“I can’t say I’m surprised about it,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said about his goaltending. “I think … there’s just an anticipation of what (Lehner) can be. … (He) came in in good shape. You can see the effects of that in his practice, you can see the effects of that in his game. ….
“I don’t know if we knew exactly what we were getting in the goaltending from Anders, but from Day One he’s been absolutely nothing but a (pro). (He has) worked extremely hard.”
Through 15 appearances, Lehner has a 2.38 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage. Nilsson’s numbers – 1.74 and .951 in five games – are even better.
Lehner, who played a career-high 36 NHL games three years ago, said he has never felt more consistent in his play and preparation.
“The last stretchof games there’s been goals that they’re not bad goals, they’re good goals, but I want to have them,” he said. “That’s the type of goalie I feel like I can be.”
Of course, the Sabres can stop the puck. They just can’t put it in the net. They’ve only scored an NHL-low 37 goals, just 1.9 a contest.
But Lehner and Nilsson offer the Sabres some hope. If they start scoring at even an average clip – remember, slick center Jack Eichel is due back soon – they could start winning regularly.
“When you can have two goalies going in there and giving you those kind of chances each night, it gives you a chance to kind of be successful,” said Sabres defenseman Cody Franson. “They’re a very big part of why we’re at where we’re at.”
While the Sabres are close to a playoff spot, they’re last in the Atlantic Division. Six teams are ahead of them in the Wild Card chase. They still have a long way to go.
But they have seven one-goal losses. They’ve played teams close.
“If there’s one thing that’s stuck out so far for this group this season, it’s been our work ethic,” Franson said.
He added: “I don’t think we’ve had a night yet where we just went out there and didn’t play. We’ve had some tough nights, but it wasn’t due to lack of effort. I think that’s something to be said for our group.”
For the first time since sustaining a high left ankle sprain Oct. 12, Eichel practiced with contact Thursday.
“There was some contact, so to speak,” Bylsma said. “He was bouncing in and out of guys. I think, yeah, it’s another step.”
It’s another step toward Eichel’s return. Eichel joined his teammates on the ice prior to Wednesday’s 2-1 shootout loss to Detroit, his first team skate in six weeks.
Thursday’s session inside KeyBank Center was a true practice.
“This is another level of practice today, which was we didn’t have five-on-five, per say, for him, or one-on-one or battle-drill situations,” Bylsma said.
Eichel, 20, won’t accompany the Sabres to Washington. Instead, he will skate on his own in Buffalo.
The second-year pro could return next week.