BUFFALO – On Dec. 13, goalie Carter Hutton made 25 saves in a 3-1 win over Arizona, improving to 13-8-1 in his first season with the Sabres.
At that point, Hutton’s campaign was going splendidly. The loquacious veteran had quickly become the No. 1 netminder the Sabres envisioned when they signed the career backup to a three-year, $8.25 million contract July 1.
But since then, Hutton, 33, has lost seven of his last eight starts (1-5-2) entering tonight’s tilt against the Edmonton Oilers, the start of a five-game road trip.
His slump started in Washington two nights after beating the Coyotes. Early in the 4-3 shootout loss to the Capitals, Hutton mishandled the puck behind the net, leading to Brett Connolly’s tying goal.
As Hutton, one of the league’s best puck-handlers, kept slinging it all over the ice earlier this season, the Sabres raved about how that element made them a better team.
Still, Hutton has rarely utilized that skill since his gaffe. After Connolly’s goal, the Sabres possibly told him to handle it less.
Hutton hasn’t exactly been playing poorly. He has a 2.86 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage in his last eight games. Yes, he needs to be better if the Sabres, who have fallen out of a playoff spot, hope to move up.
The UMass Lowell product looked weak on Sean Kuraly’s overtime winner in a 3-2 loss to the Boston Bruins on Dec. 29, giving up a juicy rebound.
Hutton also couldn’t glove Brock Nelson’s shot Dec. 31, and the puck dropped in the net for the winning goal in a 2-1 loss to the New York Islanders.
The Sabres have given Hutton little margin for error. Their goal support for him – just 1.9 a game in his seven recent losses – has been atrocious.
Some bad luck has also hurt Hutton. In Friday’s 4-3 loss in Carolina, three odd bounces – one of the Hurricanes’ goals went off the top of the net and in off his back – victimized Hutton.
Meanwhile, backup goalie Linus Ullmark, 25, has outplayed Hutton over the last month. The Swede impressed the Sabres enough during his four-game winning streak – his teammates scored 15 goals for him – he earned a second consecutive start Jan. 5 in Boston, making 39 saves in a 2-1 loss.
It’s unclear who will start Monday. Ullmark made 25 saves in Saturday’s 5-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. If he had won, it’s very likely Sabres coach Phil Housley would’ve gone back to him.
Having fallen so far so quickly – the Sabres ranked first overall Nov. 29 – Housley likely has to ride the hot hand down the stretch.
Overall, Hutton (14-13-3, 2.62 and .916 in 30 games) and Ullmark (9-3-3, 2.84 and .920 in 16 contests) have similar numbers.
A splendid road record helped buoy the Sabres’ hot start. But they’ve lost four straight contests and have a 9-10-3 record away from KeyBank Center, where they don’t play again until Feb. 1. They haven’t won a road game since beating Boston 4-2 on Dec. 16.
After tonight’s game, the Sabres play the Calgary Flames on Wednesday and the Vancouver Canucks on Friday. Following a bye week and the NHL All-Star break, the trip resumes Jan. 29 against the Columbus Blue Jackets and ends a day later versus the Dallas Stars.
“It’s going to be tough,” Sabres defenseman Marco Scandella said of the trip. “But I feel like once our backs are against the wall, we play our best hockey. We’re going to go on the road, simplify and grind out games. I’m very confident in this group. We’re going to go out and have a good road trip.”
When the Sabres went through Alberta and Vancouver last January, they went 3-0, playing perhaps their three most complete games of the season.
The Sabres had Sunday off before flying to Edmonton.
Notes: With a helper on winger Sam Reinhart’s goal Saturday, Sabres rookie Rasmus Dahlin became the seventh defenseman in NHL history to reach 20 assists before his 19th birthday. Housley compiled 40 assists before he turned 19, the most ever. … The NHL has fined Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev $2,403.67, the maximum allowable under the collective bargaining agreement, for cross-checking Sabres center Johan Larsson on Saturday. … Superstar Connor McDavid missed the Oilers’ skills competition Sunday because he was sick, according to the Edmonton Journal.