BUFFALO – Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark figured he was better equipped to handle the grind of a seven-month, 82-game NHL season.
Ullmark, after all, thrived while carrying the load in his final two AHL seasons, playing 99 games before graduating to the NHL.
“But it’s a totally different thing, totally different beast to tame when you get up here in ‘The Show,’” Ullmark said Friday following the opening sessions of training camp inside KeyBank Center.
Ullmark, 26, performed splendidly early in his first full NHL campaign, quickly establishing himself as a reliable backup.
On Jan. 4, Ullmark’s 35-save effort in a 4-3 win over the Florida Panthers improved his record to 9-1-3. After 14 appearances, he boasted a 2.73 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage.
Ullmark began stealing some games from starting goalie Carter Hutton.
Then like the rest of the Sabres, Ullmark began falling apart. In his final 23 games, he went 6-13-2 with a bloated 3.36 goals-against average and a weak .892 save percentage.
Ullmark lost 10 of his his final 12 outings (2-9-1).
“I never really thought that I played badly,” he said. “There were maybe one or two games that I thought I was playing really bad. Other than that, I thought I kind of kept it together to what I wanted to be.
“The thing is I didn’t make those extra saves that the team needed out of me.”
He added: “It was a fun year, I would say, in the end. But looking back on it, it could’ve been better. It also could’ve been much worse.”
Little seems to bother the loquacious Ullmark, who uses a song from the 1994 movie “The Lion King” – “Hakuna Matata,” a Swahili phrase that means “no worries” – as inspiration. He usually just smiles and plows ahead.
Ullmark said he learned the NHL season “is long, very long.”
“It definitely was tougher the longer we got into it,” he said.
So Ullmark spent the spring and summer preparing for an arduous season. He often posted photos and clips of his training sessions in Sweden on Instagram.
“I got a lot of different things in the back of the trunk that I can pull out of this season,” he said.
Ullmark believes familiarity could make this season easier.
“You’ve been to all the places, you’ve played in all the rinks, you know the travels, you know the hotels and everything around it,” said Ullmark, who played 37 games in 2018-19.
Ullmark can earn more action under new Sabres coach Ralph Krueger and assistant Mike Bales, who’s in charge of the netminders. Heck, he could even grab the No. 1 job.
“Everything is a competition – the minutes for the defense, the minutes for the forwards, the minutes in goal,” Krueger said of camp.
Ullmark, who has played 63 NHL games, looks refreshed. He said caring for his young son, Henry, as his wife, Moa, finished college helped him refocus.
“I enjoyed being a dad for the first time in a long time,” he said of the offseason. “I actually had to take care of him for a full day and not just a couple hours.”
Ullmark even took positives from his arbitration hearing in August.
“I found it interesting, just the whole process of doing it, leading up to it, being there,” he said. “It was more the whole experience was on the positive side than it was on the negative side, because in the end, I was going to come out of it with a contract.”
The Sabres and Ullmark agreed to a one-year, $1.325 million contract before the independent arbiter made a decision.
Ullmark could be playing for his future in Buffalo.
Hutton, 33, has two years left on his contract. Meanwhile, top goalie prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who underwent hip surgery in May, should start playing for the Rochester Americans in November.
Luukkonen, 20, is regarded as the Sabres’ goalie of the future.
“I don’t feel any more pressure,” Ullmark said. “Every game is an opportunity. If I go out there and I win my games, I don’t think they’re going to pull me or put me on the bench or kick me out of the team.”