BUFFALO – In just five games with the Sabres, goalie Anders Nilsson has already earned the kind of confidence from his coach that often takes years to develop.
Instead of using No. 1 goalie Robin Lehner against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Dan Bylsma tabbed Nilsson, his backup, to play against the defending Stanley Cup champions on Saturday inside KeyBank Center, a tilt the Sabres won 2-1 in a shootout.
The Swede has impressed this season, so Bylsma figured with a busy schedule and one of the next four games reserved for him, he could start him against the Penguins.
Nilsson rewarded Bylsma’s faith by dazzling throughout his 57th NHL appearance, stopping the first 32 shots he faced, including 18 in the first period, and 46 overall. For a while Saturday, it appeared the reeling, injury-plagued Sabres would eke out a 1-0 victory before the bipartisan crowd of 18,817 fans.
William Carrier’s first NHL goal 8:16 in the game put the Sabres up. At times, Nilsson looked unbeatable.
But Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby’s power-play goal, his 12th score in 12 games this season, tied it 5:46 into the third period.
Still, the Sabres, thanks to Cal O’Reilly’s shootout winner, pulled off a huge upset, ending their six-game losing streak.
The real star, of course, was Nilsson, who made a point-blank stop on Kris Letang in overtime.
“The way he played he deserved to win that game,” said O’Reilly, who was recalled on Saturday morning.
Nilsson said: “I feel pretty confident out there.”
So, will Nilsson start Monday against the Calgary Flames? He does, after all, have a 1.74 goals-against average and a .951 save percentage, numbers that dwarf Lehner’s 2.53 and .919.
“That’s a good win, isn’t it?” a smiling Bylsma said, refusing to answer the question.
While Nilsson had a few terrific saves, he mostly made routine stops, looking “solid in net and real calm,” Bylsma said.
“(He) didn’t seem to get flustered when the puck was alive in the blue paint,” Bylsma said. “You may need a performance like that to get a win against Pittsburgh, and he gave it to us.”
Nilsson added: “I don’t think they had that many scoring chances.”
The Sabres knew they couldn’t get into a high-scoring game with the Penguins. Incredibly, they’ve scored two or fewer goals in 10 straight games.
“We wanted it to be a tight game,” Bylsma said. “We wanted it to be a 1-0 game.”
The Sabres ended a nine-game losing streak against the Penguins, beating them for the first time since April 23, 2013.
“It doesn’t really matter at this point in time who it’s against, but a win we desperately needed against one of the better teams, if not the best team in the league,” Bylsma said.
On paper, the game looked like an epic mismatch. The Penguins are loaded with lethal talent, some of which will end up in the Hall of Fame. The Sabres, meanwhile, dressed a lineup filled with neophytes and recalls. With six regulars injured, lines have been juggled and players have been forced into new roles.
Sabres winger Marcus Foligno briefly left the game late in the second period after Brian Dumoulin hit him hard into the end boards from behind. Foligno stayed down for a minute or two before leaving the ice but returned early in the third period. Dumoulin was only given a two-minute penalty.
Foligno left again after blocking Carl Hagelin’s shot as time expired in regulation. Foligno said he can play Monday.
They Sabres are 2-4-2 at home this season.