Robin Lehner's return from a concussion lasted all of 27:30 in the Buffalo Sabres' season opener on Oct. 8. Playing against the Ottawa Senators, his former team, the goaltender dropped into the butterfly after playing the puck behind the net. When he tried to get back up, he was visibly struggling to put pressure on his right leg.
Lehner had sustained a high ankle sprain, an injury that's bad for most players and worse for goaltenders. After months of rehab from the concussion he had sustained while playing for Ottawa in February, his first game back hadn't even lasted two full periods. He'd need 6-10 weeks to recover, Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said at the time.
Now, nearly 12 weeks removed from the injury, the goaltender finally returned to a full practice with his teammates on Tuesday at First Niagara Center.
"It's really fun," Lehner said after the skate. "I mean I felt it last year – the first time with Ottawa – it was my first injury in my career and it just sucks being away from the guys. It's pretty unlucky to get it again right afterwards; I'm not used to being away from the guys and that's the hard part."
Being away from his teammates wasn't the only obstacle Lehner faced during his rehab, which the goaltender said was as tough mentally as it was physically. He said he had a setback about eight weeks into his recovery, just when he felt he was approaching 100 percent.
Lehner believes he's at 100 percent now, but only for practice. The speed of the game was a bit quick for him on Tuesday, which could be expected. Bylsma even said that he purposefully avoided watching to see whether or not his goalie was stopping pucks on his first day back.
He'll continue to develop his timing in practices, which will eventually lead to playing rehab games in Rochester. In the meantime, there will be more tweaks to his ankle.
"No question," Bylsma said. "You're dealing with a confidence issue and even a knowledge that if you tweak it, it's not the end of the world. It's going to happen; it's the nature of the injury.
"How he's going to be going down repeatedly, it's going to happen and to have it happen and respond and get confidence in being on his feet and doing it over and over again is part of the process for him."
Buffalo's goaltending has been sound in Lehner's absence. Chad Johnson, a backup for his career entering this season, seized his opportunity and has gone 7-3-2 with a .932 save percentage and a 1.81 goals-against average since the beginning of November.
Linus Ullmark, a rookie who had never even played a game in North America and wasn't projected to return from hip surgery until November, has gone 5-8-2 with a .912 save percentage and a 2.60 GAA.
"I've been impressed," Lehner said of Ullmark. "He's been a true professional; he's a really good guy. He's come in and embraced it and he's showed what he's capable of."
THE RIGHT AREAS
Bylsma was asked after practice how he felt the team had progressed in regard to pouncing on loose pucks. He gave an insightful answer, which he began by posing a hypothetical question: Who's the best net-front player of the last 20 years?
"We'd probably get to Tomas Holmström pretty quick," Bylsma said. "Pretty much everyone you talk to would get to that answer too. There's a reason why. You know every coach says, 'Go to the net,' every coach says 'Go to the dirty areas,' but why is he the best at it, clearly? I've tried to learn from what he did and how he did it."
What he's learned, he said, is that simply "getting to the net" isn't always the answer.
"How you go there and where you go is maybe more important than just going there," Bylsma said. "There's rebound areas, the puck goes to certain areas, and if we all go to the one area we're not necessarily going to get the opportunity to be in that area to score goals.
"Drilling those habits in and getting those details in is more important than just the notion that we've got to get to the net more."
He used Jamie McGinn's game-winning goal in Boston on Saturday to illustrate his point. On that play, Ryan O'Reilly skated behind the goal line and tossed the puck to the front of the net. McGinn was waiting in the perfect location to capitalize.
"You see him go the area, the puck comes in off the goalie and he's in the right spot to cash in on that opportunity," Bylsma said. "That's something I think we've got to keep getting better at and have been better at."
Buffalo will look to improve starting Wednesday night when they face the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center to complete a home-and-home series. Pregame coverage on MSG-B and Bell TV begins at 6:30 p.m. with puck drop set for 7 p.m.