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Goalies coming up big for Sabres

Strong goaltending has been a key factor during the Sabres’ nine-game winning streak

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Buffalo Sabres Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

It sure is nice to finally have reliable goaltenders in Buffalo. In fact, the word “reliable” might be an understatement considering how well Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark have performed this season, especially during the Sabres’ nine-game winning streak.

Looking back to the first victory of the team’s current run (a 6-5 victory over the Montreal Canadiens) Ullmark was actually pulled after the second period, but it’s been all positive ever since. Combined, the tandem has posted an impressive .928 save percentage over the last nine games.

On the season, their .921 combined save-percentage places them in a tie with the Nashville Predators netminders for the fifth-best mark in the NHL. Comparatively, Last year’s duo of Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson (and Ullmark for a brief stint), finished the 2017-18 campaign with a .896 save-percentage, which placed them 29th.

As the league leader in raw save-percentage last season (posting a .931 in 32 games for the St. Louis Blues), Hutton has remained solid as a primary starter in Buffalo. His current mark of .919 is good for 14th in the league (among players with at least 10 starts), and his 11 wins place him third behind Marc-Andre Fleury and Frederik Andersen.

Oddly enough, his GSAA of -1.64 ranks him toward the bottom of the league (among starters). It will be interesting to see how that number changes as the season marches on, but that metric doesn’t exactly jive with the ol’ eyeball test.

In a reserve role, Ullmark has made a seamless transition to the NHL. With a save-percentage of .926 and a 5-0-1 record, he’s the only goalie in the league who has appeared in at least seven games without a regulation loss. Not bad for a guy who finished last season on the lowest note possible, posting a .800 save-percentage in a first-round sweep in the Calder Cup Playoffs (though it’s worth noting that he had just recovered from a concussion that left him sidelined for two weeks).

Phil Housley deserves a lot of credit for how well he has placed Ullmark in a position to succeed. The goaltender rotation so far this season has set the 25-year-old up with some favorable matchups. As he continues develop (and perform at a high level) he’ll likely see a more challenging slate of opponents. Some would say that process has already started.

On Saturday night, he was sensational against a Detroit Red Wings team that had gone 6-3-1 in their previous 10 games, stopping 33 shots as the first star of the game. Before that, he bested Devan Dubnyk and the second-place Minnesota Wild where he kept the Sabres in a game where they were badly out-shot.

Another interesting item of note is how many shots-per-game are being generated against the Sabres. Last season they allowed the 10th most shots-against per-game at 32.70. This season, that number has been slightly reduced at 32.29, but it’s worth noting how well the new goalie tandem has handled a comparatively similar shot volume.

Obviously, the Sabres’ uptick in scoring has also played a significant role in their success so far. Averaging just over three goals per game, they’ve improved by over half a goal from 2017-18 where they finished dead-last in scoring. Still, their current mark places them at 16th this season so their current standing is still, in large part, a result of outstanding goaltending.

As the team continues to find ways to win, certain fans (of the both the Sabres and their rivals) have been quick to point out that Buffalo has been more lucky than good as of late. There’s some merit to that argument. They’ve been out-shot in five times during the current streak, and they’ve orchestrated six third period comebacks in that span. Still, that rhetoric does tend to discount how strong they’ve been between the pipes.

It goes without saying that this type of success is unsustainable, but if Hutton and Ullmark can keep up their respective pace, the Sabres will be able to stay in (and of course, win) games where they would have otherwise floundered last season with Lehner and Johnson.

Hutton will be back in the cage tonight as his squad tries to make it ten-in-a-row against a very solid San Jose Sharks team.