TAMPA - It's been a busy season for Linus Ullmark. In his second pro season, he's skated more minutes than any other player in the American Hockey League (3,082:36), a campaign that earned him a nod as an AHL All-Star back in January.
Sunday, too, was a busy day for Ullmark, who made his first NHL start in exactly one year as the Buffalo Sabres concluded their season on the road in Tampa. He faced 37 shots and let in three, the last of which Evander Kane succinctly described in the dressing room after the game.
"A bounce that kind of sums up our season," Kane said.
The bounce that Kane was alluding to was Brayden Point's second goal of the night, which deflected into the Buffalo net off the leg of Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. The goal broke a 2-2 tie with 1:24 remaining, and the Lightning went on to win 4-2.
Video: BUF Recap: Ullmark stellar as Sabres lose to Bolts
With back-to-back losses on Saturday and Sunday, the Sabres finished their season with 78 points. Their recent stretch of games, they admitted, was made more difficult by the realization that they had fallen short of their goal to make the playoffs.
"Mentally, very difficult, just because the last three weeks we're out of it and battling through it," Kane, who scored a goal to tie the game in the third period, said. "I think some of us were maybe hoping that this game would maybe mean a little bit more than it did tonight."
"I think all of us are dealing with the disappointment of coming up short, being not in the playoff picture, not in that spot," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "It's been difficult on everybody with that realization and feeling like you aren't meeting expectations. You play these last games with that kind of heaped on your shoulders."
What the game did serve as was a chance for young players to prove themselves, which started with Ullmark. The goalie made 20 starts as a rookie in the NHL last season, but had to wait until game No. 82 to get the nod this time around.
Ullmark ended up making multiple highlight-reel saves, and he made life particularly different for Jonathan Drouin. He robbed Drouin with the glove early, stopped his one-time attempt from point-blank range later and poke-checked the puck away when Drouin cut through the crease in the second period.
Video: BUF@TBL: Ullmark robs Drouin with great glove save
"Well, I had to give him some payback," Ullmark explained. "Last time I played him in Syracuse, he got my number a couple times so I'm happy that I got to shut him down."
Aside from the goal from Point that deflected in off of Ristolainen, the other two goals that Ullmark allowed both were the product of defensive lapses. Point's first goal was a backdoor tap-in of a slap pass from Victor Hedman, and Braydon Coburn put the Lightning ahead 2-1 in the second period on an odd-man rush while the Sabres were on the power play.
Hedman rounded out the scoring with an empty-net goal with one second left on the clock.
"It was a fun game for me," Ullmark said. "We didn't get the 'W' like we always want, sadly, but looking at it personally, I felt that I did what I needed to do out there. I just needed to [save] one more shot … That's how the game is."
Other than Ullmark, Buffalo saw impact from its young players in the goal from William Carrier that opened the scoring with 6:04 remaining in the first period. Carrying the puck in the Sabres' zone, Alexander Nylander recognized that the Lightning had a defender pinching down. With little space to work with, he made backhand pass to free Carrier on an odd-man rush up the right wing.
Carrier did the rest with his speed and his shot:
Video: BUF@TBL: Carrier picks the corner for opening goal
With the primary assist, Nylander earned his first NHL point. He said he's felt better with each game since being recalled for the first time on April 3 and Ullmark, his teammate in Rochester for most of this season, agreed.
"To be honest with you, I thought he [played] a really good game today," Ullmark said. "He's just struggled a little bit at knowing where to be sometimes in D-zone, offensive zone, but today I think he probably [had] his best game since he got called up. I'm very happy for him that he got his first NHL point in the last game of the season. Future's looking bright for that kid."
After the Sabres questioned their own intensity following a 3-0 loss to Florida on Saturday, they showed life facing a 2-1 deficit with 20 minutes left to play in their season. Kane scored his team-high 28th goal on a crossing feed from Brian Gionta to tie the game with 8:43 remaining.
Video: BUF@TBL: Kane nets Gionta's pass for 300th point
Even after Point regained the lead for Tampa Bay, the Sabres continued to push hard, with the image of Jack Eichel diving in desperation toward a loose puck in front of Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy standing out from the game's final minute.
"We're down by a goal, we're all professionals, we're paid to do a job and regardless of the situation you're in, you can't come out and give up because the other team's going to make you look silly and take advantage of that," Kane said. "We we're down by a goal, obviously we knew we had to make a push and we were all tied up."
Then came the bounce, then went the season. After the game, the always-optimistic Ullmark made a fitting comment that summed up the feeling in the dressing room, be it for the young players like him who were only just beginning to show what they can do or for the guys who had been with the team all season that ran out of time on their goal.
"Now that it's said and done," he said, "I'm just sad that we don't have any more games."