BUFFALO – In the span of six months, Sabres goalie Chad Johnson has been a backup, a starter, part of a platoon with rookie Linus Ullmark and a backup again.
For this weekend at least, with Robin Lehner sidelined, Johnson is the Sabres’ top netminder again.
Johnson started Friday’s 3-1 win over the Ottawa Senators inside the First Niagara Center, his fifth straight victory, and will get another nod tonight in Toronto against the Maple Leafs, Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said.
Lehner could play again this season. The Sabres want the Swede to spend two or three days resting and rehabbing the ankle injury he just aggravated twice in a week, Bylsma said.
Lehner suffered a high right ankle sprain opening night and has been dealing with it since returning in January.
Right now, shutting Lehner down for the season isn’t in the team’s thought process, Bylsma said.
“(A) high ankle sprain is just one you deal with for a long time,” he said. “I don’t think at any one point in time he hasn’t been dealing with it since coming back.”
To replace Lehner, the Sabres summoned goalie Nathan Lieuwen, 24, his second recall this season. With the Rochester Americans in a playoff fight, the Sabres likely want Ullmark to stay in the AHL and keep playing regularly.
Very quietly, Johnson, an unrestricted free agent following the season, has enjoyed a strong campaign, performing like a No. 1 goalie most of the year.
Friday was Johnson’s 38th appearance. The career backup had never played more than 27 times.
“His strength as a goalie was getting the spot start,” Bylsma said. “The question about Chad was he’s never really had the net. He’s never really played the net as a starter.”
Johnson said his bigger and changing role has helped him reach a “different level” mentally.
“I think I’ve definitely grown a lot this year just with the maturity level, dealing with playing a lot, the pressures of that,” he said. “I’ve got a good opportunity this year. I thought I’ve played well and consistent.”
Bylsma lauded Johnson, calling him a “true professional” in his approach and dealing with ups and downs.
“From getting games, (being a) starter, a young kid coming in and sharing the net, maybe (Ullmark) taking more of it from him, he’s been a calm, true professional in dealing with it all right through the season,” he said.
Lieuwen, meanwhile, is 14-10-1 with a 2.86 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage in 26 AHL games this season. He backed up Johnson five times in October.
“It kind of jumpstarted things for me to come back right away and be here and get some practices and get to the pace,” Lieuwen said about his early recall. “Obviously, going back down, it took me a little bit to find my legs there, but when I did, I felt great.”
Concussion problems forced Lieuwen to end his 2014-15 season almost halfway through. Lieuwen played seven games for the Sabres two years ago.
With defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo (lower body) day-to-day, the Sabres recalled Chad Ruhwedel, 25, for the first time this season.
Incredibly, the Sabres used only eight defensemen in their first 71 games.
“Yes, it’s pretty odd to have been this healthy,” Bylsma said.
Other than recalling Jake McCabe from a one-game assignment in October and Mark Pysyk from a short conditioning stint, the Sabres hadn’t dipped into Rochester.
“You can say it’s frustrating, but at the end of the day, a guy beat you out for a spot in training camp,” Ruhwedel said about staying in the minors all season.
Ruhwedel, who has eight goals and 22 points in 46 AHL appearances, played his 33rd NHL game, skating beside Pysyk. He has five goals and 12 points in his last 12 AHL outings.
Update: Ruhwedel has been sent back to the Amerks.
New Update: The Sabres have recalled winger Dan Catenacci from the Amerks, meaning the Sabres likely have an injured or ill forward. Stay tuned for details.
Sabres general manager Tim Murray recently overhauled the Amerks’ roster, making a seven-player AHL trade with Ottawa.
“We got a whole new look it feels like,” Ruhwedel said. “Traded away some big-name guys and got some big-name guys in return. The team’s got a new feel to it now.”
Bylsma said rookie goalie Jason Kasdorf will stay off the ice a little longer and rehab his groin injury more aggressively. He hopes Kasdorf, who signed an entry-level contract earlier this week, can have an on-ice session with goalie coach Andrew Allen next week.