A long night of travel found Robin Lehner sitting tired at his stall in the Buffalo Sabres' dressing room after practice on Thursday morning. In the last 24 hours, he'd played a full game in Albany, took a three-hour bus ride down Interstate 90 to Rochester and then arrived, finally, back in Buffalo.
That trip, the goaltender hopes, is his last on what's been an exceptionally long road to recovery. Now 11 months removed from his last full game in the NHL, he feels the time is right for him to get back into the net for the Sabres.
"I'm ready. I feel like I'm ready," he said without hesitation. "Is it going to be perfect? I don't know. But I'm going to do my best and I'm going to compete and I feel like I'm getting better every day right now."
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma confirmed that, whether it's against the Boston Bruins on Friday night or the Washington Capitals on Saturday, it is likely we'll see Lehner start at least once over the weekend. It will mark his first League action since Buffalo's season opener on Oct. 8, when he went down with a high ankle sprain.
To recap: Lehner was traded to the Sabres from the Ottawa Senators along with David Legwand on June 26 in exchange for the No. 21 overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. At that time, he hadn't played a game since sustaining a concussion on Feb. 16. Andrew Hammond replaced him in that game and went on to win 20 of 23 contests for the remainder of the season.
Lehner's Sabres debut was supposed to mark the end of his rehabilitation. But 27:30 into that game, against the team that traded him, the goalie hurt his ankle while dropping into the butterfly. Not even halfway through his first game, he was already back on the injured list.
"It's been very difficult," Lehner admitted. "I don’t think many guys have gone through what I went through last year. I went down with a concussion and Andrew Hammond comes in and plays out of this world. You lose your job, that's how it works and I get a new chance here and get injured again.
"A little soul-crushing at the beginning this year but I worked through it and I worked hard to come back. I've been working hard to try and help the team."
That work took him most recently through a three-game conditioning stint with the Rochester Americans, which concluded with a 35-save effort against Albany on Wednesday. He went 1-2-0 with a .888 save percentage and a 3.36 goals-against average.
The Amerks lost that game 4-0, but Lehner said he was comfortable with his individual performance. He's grown more accustomed to playing with a sore ankle and said his positioning had gotten better. When the time does come for him to get in net for the Sabres, he said, the rehab stint will bode well for his confidence.
"I'm a competitive guy, I want to win," he said. "Obviously I also went down with the mindset that I wanted to get back. I just wanted to get back. Being a goalie, you see the pucks, start working on details [and] make some mistakes so I can correct those mistakes."
Linus Ullmark was reassigned to Rochester in a move that corresponded with Lehner's recall. Tossed into a significant role with the team despite having never played a game in North America, he went 7-10-2 with a .915 save percentage and a 2.58 goals-against average in 19 games.
Naturally, Ullmark got better as his experience mounted. He allowed two goals or less in six of his last seven starts and was the winning goaltender in Buffalo's last two contests. The decision to send him down, Bylsma said, was a difficult one.
"Yes, it was," the coach said. "He's gotten in the net and shown he can be a big-time goalie and make big saves for us at the NHL level in his 20 games that he got with us. I think it's pretty promising, what he's shown, with what type of goaltender he can be in making the big saves and being a big-time goaltender with the Sabres in the future."
Chad Johnson, meanwhile, has done just as much to fill the void left by Lehner during the first half of the season, going 10-12-2 with a .916 save percentage and a 2.46 goals-against average. His role remains of equal importance in light of Lehner's return, Bylsma said.
"Chad's had a lot of the net for the first 43 games and you look at his November chunk (.954 save percentage in seven games) which he was excellent in," Bylsma said. "He's played some excellent hockey for us and this is not going to be a situation where Robin's going to play the next 39 in a row. Chad's going to get the net as well and I think it's important for us to have that."
Forget 39 games; Lehner's looking forward to playing just one. For as tired as he may have been as he sat at his tall on Thursday morning, he summoned a more appropriate word to describe the feeling of being back in Buffalo: excitement.
"I'm just excited to play again," he said. "My family is excited for me to play again. I'm not supposed to just sit there at home and come in to work out, you know, that’s not what I'm made for. I like to play hockey so it's nice to be able to do that again."
9 Evander Kane – 90 Ryan O'Reilly – 88 Jamie McGinn
28 Zemgus Girgensons – 15 Jack Eichel – 23 Sam Reinhart
82 Marcus Foligno – 22 Johan Larsson – 12 Brian Gionta
26 Matt Moulson – 59 Tim Schaller- 17 David Legwand
4 Josh Gorges – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe – 47 Zach Bogosian
6 Mike Weber – 46 Cody Franson
25 Carlo Colaiacovo – 3 Mark Pysyk
40 Robin Lehner
31 Chad Johnson