After taking the New York Rangers to overtime on Monday in the NHL’s Winter Classic at Citi Field, the Buffalo Sabres have points in nine of their last 12 games. They’ve earned 13 points in 12 games–their best stretch this season.
In a season where little has gone right for the Sabres, goaltender Robin Lehner has been keeping his team in games where they often hang him out to dry. He’s giving them a chance to win every game. That’s all one can ask of a starting goalie.
Lehner has been a lightning rod for criticism ever since former-Sabres general manager Tim Murray acquired him (and David Legwand) for the 21st pick overall at the 2015 NHL Draft.
The 2009 second-round pick was drafted 46th overall by the Ottawa Senators. After finishing up his three-year, $6.675 million deal, Sabres’ first-year general manager Jason Botterill signed Lehner to a one-year, $4 million contract in the off-season. It’s proving to be one of the best goaltender values in the league.
The Sabres still retain Lehner’s rights after the season–he will be a restricted free agent.
A Winter Classic With a Swedish ‘Tvist’
Monday’s matchup in New York was between two Swedish goaltenders that met roughly fifteen years ago in Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg. That’s when Henrik Lundqvist, then 19, went to visit Michael Lehner, a goaltending coach (Robin’s father). He was beginning his professional career in the Swedish Hockey League and was looking for some coaching advice.
“I was there to meet his dad to talk about goaltending, and Robin was 11 or 12 years old, just started playing,” said Lundqvist. “He had big dreams but also understood that it was a long road ahead of him to make it.”
Sixteen years later, they faced one another in the Winter Classic.
“I’m really happy for him. He worked really hard to get where he is today,” said ‘The King.’
Lehner holds Lundqvist in high regard. Their handshake and hug after the Winter Classic game ended was evidence. “He’s the best Swedish goaltender that’s ever played,” Lehner said. “He’s a good guy. It’s always fun playing against him.”
Since meeting him back then, Lundqvist has kept an eye on Lehner’s career. “His biggest strength, in my opinion, is how he competes. He’s a big guy (6-foot-4, 245 pounds) and he uses [his size] really well. You see a lot of guys now with size, but the guys that are using it well, and move well on their feet, they are going to have a good opportunity to stop the puck. I think that is what he is doing now, using his size and his quickness. You add all that together and you are going to get some results,” said Lundqvist.
Lehner is known for his laser-like stare and fiery demeanor; he’s fearless in everything he approaches. For a warmup session, he chose to go old school, sporting a 1970s-style mask used by Gerry Desjardins for a morning outdoor practice at Citi field. Whether he was channeling his inner Gerry Cheevers or summoning Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th in an attempt to scare the Rangers, Lehner’s eccentric side showed once again.
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) January 1, 2018
The dark eyes and soul-less expression don’t compare to how horrifying his team’s defense has been in front of Lehner. All too often they’ve been collapsing around him, not taking out their man and often screening his view of the puck.
A Tale of Two Swedes
Lundqvist is the backbone of the Rangers. The 13-year veteran has been a mainstay in net since he joined the team in the 2005-06 season. He has an impressive 423 wins to his credit. He’s in the fourth year of a seven-year, $59.5 million contract ($8.5 million annually). With him in goal, the Rangers have only missed the playoffs once (2010). They made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014, only to lose to the Los Angeles Kings.
Robin Lehner, 26, is in his third season with the Sabres. He’s started 28 games this season and is 9-14-6 with one shutout. Of goalies that have played in at least 20 games this season, his 2.75 goals against average is 20th best in the league. He’s allowed 76 goals on 903 shots, for a .916 save percentage (15th best in the league), two thousandths of point behind Devan Dubnyk of the Minnesota Wild, 2016 Vezina-winner Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals, and 2017 Vezina-winner Sergei Bobrovsky Columbus Blue Jackets. He’s appeared in 30 games and is on pace to top the NHL career-best 59 he played last year.
Lehner is Playing Well
Lehner’s strong play often goes unrecognized. Fans would rather call out an odd soft goal for every 50 point-blank incredible saves he makes. Yesterday, the Sabres goaltender made 39 saves in the overtime loss to the Rangers, two shy of the record for an outdoor game (set in 2014 by Toronto’s Jonathan Bernier against Detroit).
For the month of December, among goalies that played at least six games in December, Lehner had a .928 save percentage (sixth best in the league) and 2.46 goals against average. He was 4-3-3. He stopped 234 of the last 246 shots he’s faced during five-on-five play, a sparkling .951 save percentage. This number is actually even more impressive considering three goals were scored when the opponent had pulled its goalie and was playing six-on-five.
No Goal Support
Since Nov. 25, the Sabres’ scoring has been a ‘no show’ all too often. In 16 games, they’ve scored 31 goals, less than two per game. In a four-game span, they scored one solitary, measly goal.
For the season, the Sabres rank last in the league, averaging just 2.21 in goals for per game. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Tampa Bay Lightning average 3.74 goals per game.
The Rangers average 3.11 goals for per game, nearly a goal more per game than the Sabres. On most nights, that goal is the difference between winning and losing.
Fans of the Blue and Gold were gifted with one of the greatest goaltenders in the history of the game, Dominik Hasek. His acrobatics and highlight reel saves masked many problems the team had. Eventually he went on to win two Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings. That’s not to say Lehner is Hasek, he’s not. But the big Swede is playing really well. If only the defense in front of him could get out of his way and the offense could find their way.
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”