BUFFALO – Sabres goalie Robin Lehner grabbed the new mask he plans to debut for Military Appreciation Night, showed the soldiers and camouflage painted on the front and then turned it around.
At the bottom of the back plate, the Swede had “Trump” painted on with a small picture of the President-Elect.
“Got a little support for my man Trump here,” Lehner said Thursday after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s tilt against the New Jersey Devils inside KeyBank Center. “It’s going to be a fun night.”
Why does Lehner, who practiced with the mask Thursday, admire Trump?
“I just like him a lot,” he said. “I think he’s going to make a lot of change.”
Trump, of course, is a polarizing figure. When the Times Herald tried to ask Lehner more about his support for Trump, he replied, “I’m not going to talk politics with you.”
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said Lehner has a “right” to put Trump on his mask.
“He’s got other things on there that he’s honoring, paying tribute to,” he said.
Lehner, 25, clearly has a deep respect for the military, which will be honored tonight. He has lived on and off in the United States for six years.
“Even though I’m not American, I appreciate what the military and all these guys do,” Lehner said.
He added: “It’s something you got to show respect for all the people serving.”
Lehner believes hockey players are “the lucky ones.”
“We get to do something we love day in and day out,” he said. “It’s because of people like that we’re able to do that.”
If the mask was only made for tonight, Lehner might not get to wear it in a game. After six straight nods, Lehner said backup goalie Anders Nilsson will start tonight, his first appearance since posting a 33-save shutout Oct. 29. Lehner said he will start Saturday in New Jersey.
The short break is deserved. Lehner has become the workhorse No. 1 netminder the Sabres sorely wanted, playing 10 of the first 13 games. At that pace, he would play 63 times, shattering his previous career high of 36 appearances set with Ottawa in 2013-14.
“That’s what we play for,” Lehner said of the constant action. “It’s definitely fun seeing a lot of games.”
Lehner hardly saw the net last season, playing only 21 games as he battled a high ankle sprain that shelved him three months and eventually ended his season.
His injury battles have been well documented. Two years ago with the Senators, Lehner suffered a season-ending concussion in February. He couldn’t train normally, meaning his weight ballooned before his Sabres career started.
Following ankle surgery in March, Lehner reshaped his body, shedding about 40 pounds.
“He got in better shape, better condition,” Bylsma said. “He was able to work harder, which he did. He’s been able to have a better camp, better practices, work harder in practice, and it’s shown in his play.”
Right now, Lehner owns some of the NHL’s best numbers. His .929 save percentage ranked seventh entering Thursday’s games. His 2.19 goals against average ranked 10th. Thanks to weak goal support, his record is only 4-4-2.
Is this the best Lehner has ever felt?
“It feels solid,” he said.
If Lehner keeps building on his strong start, the Sabres could have their first franchise goalie since Ryan Miller left in 2014.
Lehner doesn’t rank among the league’s elite yet. Still, he shares a special goalie trait Bylsma has seen in Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury, who backstopped his Penguins to a Stanley Cup in 2009, and Anaheim’s Jean-Sebastien Giguere, his teammate during the Ducks’ run to the 2003 Cup final.
“They want to have the net,” Bylsma said. “They want to have the opportunity. They want to have the shots. They want to have it so they can win the hockey game. Three different personalities … but that’s when I think the goaltender’s at his best, he wants to be in there.”
Lehner is usually at his best showcasing a calm style, reading shots well. He doesn’t make a lot of highlight-reel saves.
But Lehner, a fiery personality, loves to battle. That was evident in Saturday’s 2-1 win in Ottawa, a game he made a few nifty stops, including a diving stick save on Jean-Gabriel Pageau, one of the NHL’s best this season.
“Lenny’s one of those guys that never gives up on a puck,” Sabres defenseman Cody Franson said. “You can see it so far in the game’s he’s played this year. He’s kept us in every game, given us chances to win. You don’t get that kind of goaltending without the effort he’s putting in on every puck.”