BUFFALO – Following a one-game rest, Sabres goalie Jhonas Enroth will likely start tonight against the Colorado Avalanche, his 11th nod in the last 13 contests and 22nd appearance overall this season.
At his current pace, the 26-year-old would play 52 times. But given the frequency of his recent action, it’s not crazy to think the diminutive Swede, one of the NHL’s smallest netminders at 5-foot-10 and 166 pounds, could hit the prestigious 60-game mark.
Enroth has never played more than 28 games in an NHL season.
“I’ve only been playing 20-plus games all my years here,” Enroth said Friday inside HarborCenter. “So it’s definitely a lot higher pace with games. That’s what we work for. I’m enjoying it.”
To Enroth, who wrestled the No. 1 job away from friend Michal Neuvirth last month, these games have a special meaning. As a starting NHL goalie, he’s living a dream.
“I feel like I’m getting a bigger role on the team, and I’m starting to feel like I belong here more than I did before when I’d just been backing up Ryan (Miller),” Enroth said. “So it’s definitely a good feeling.”
He added: “I mean, I love it. It’s nice to … play more games and get to play against the great teams pretty much every night. It’s a lot of fun.”
Enroth’s calm, focused style has been fun to watch most nights during the Sabres’ recent resurgence. He hasn’t made many spectacular saves because he’s so in tune and reading plays so well he often makes saves look easy.
Playing so regularly has given Enroth a rhythm and allowed him to find a groove.
“When you play a couple games in a row, you start thinking less when you’re out there, and that’s what you’re striving to do, don’t think too much, trust your instincts,” Enroth said. “When you’re having a good stretch and playing well, that’s usually what the key is, where you don’t think too much.”
Overall, Enroth is 10-10-1 with a 2.96 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. His even-strength save percentage is a strong .930, the same number as Montreal’s Carey Price and two points higher than his idol, the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist.
Since taking over for an injured Neuvirth on Nov. 18, Enroth’s numbers – 9-1, 2.21 and .935 – are spectacular. He has won every game during the Sabres’ six-game home winning streak at the First Niagara Center.
He finally has some goal support, too. In recent seasons, the Sabres’ feeble offense has often made Enroth the hard-luck loser.
But the Sabres have scored some goals recently. They have rallied late in five of their last six wins. They won 4-3 twice last week and 5-4 on Monday, helping Enroth earn victories on nights he wasn’t at his best.
“It’s definitely been taking some pressure off it,” Enroth said after a brief laugh. “Obviously … the last game I gave up four goals, it wasn’t a great game but we still won. When we win there’s really no problems.”
Still, Enroth made key stops those nights.
“He’s played well almost every game he’s been in,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said. “Even games he let in more, he didn’t let … that fourth one in to beat us. When we see them tie it up, he shut the door for us, and particularly in the shootouts, he’s been really, really good and given us a chance to get points. So no complaints as far as his play whatsoever.”
For now, Nolan will keep riding Enroth. Having played a career-high 58 times as an AHL rookie in 2008-09 with Portland, Enroth believes he can handle a heavy workload and play 60 or so games.
“I played pretty much every game when I was down in Portland,” he said. “I felt pretty good those years, and I think I’m in better shape now than I was a couple of years ago, so I think I can do it.”
Enroth said he grew up “a little bit more and started taking care of myself” by improving his eating and sleeping habits and “practicing smarter.”
“So I think I’m just a little bit more mature now than I used to be,” he said.
Meanwhile, Neuvirth, who played regularly for almost a month, must wait for his opportunity. He lost 5-1 Tuesday in Winnipeg. The 26-year-old has played well in some losses and has a .915 save percentage.
“It is tough, but it’s a goalie life,” Neuvirth said. “Only one guy can play. Jhony’s been unbelievable lately. So I’ve been in this situation before. I got to stay positive and keep working hard. Good things will happen.”
Nolan said Neuvirth must “do extra” when he plays “to get another moment.”
“I feel it’ll make him stronger and better in the long run,” he said.