With the uncertainty that looms surrounding the trade deadline at this time of year and the pressure that comes with losing three games in a row, it was refreshing to have Linus Ullmark in the dressing room with the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday morning.
Ullmark was the first goalie off the ice for the Sabres following their morning skate, but Dan Bylsma did not officially announce a starter for the game against Nashville. Robin Lehner, who missed the game on Sunday with an upper-body injury, passed his testing and joined the team midway through the skate.
Still, it seemed like the smile never left Ullmark's face when he spoke to the media. The second-year pro is in the midst of the biggest workload of his career - he's 42 games in an All-Star season for the Rochester Americans - an experience he referred to as "great fun."
"It's a different type of hockey, of course, but it's always fun, you know?" Ullmark said. "That's all I can say about this. It's always fun."
Ullmark went from looking like he'd miss the beginning of his rookie season to being thrusted into the net for the Sabres last season, when he healed quickly from surgery on both of his hips and shared the net with Chad Johnson while Lehner dealt with a high-ankle sprain.
This season, he said, has been more along the lines of how he originally expected last year would have gone. It's the full AHL experience, from the stretches of three games in three nights to the long bus rides and the occasional call-ups to serve as a backup when necessary.
When asked if the experience has changed him, he answered, "I'm definitely a different goalie but still the same guy." The changes on the ice stem from a growing comfort with the North American game, an experience he had never had prior to last season.
If he is called upon to face the Predators, he does have last season's experience to lean on. Ullmark made 20 starts for Buffalo in 2015-16, posting an 8-10-2 record with a 2.60 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage.
"I can imagine how the game's going to go, actually," he said. "They're a good team, Nashville, obviously. Of course they have a hot first line with [Filip] Forsberg and those guys so I've just got to be right on my toes right from the get-go. Like I said before, we've just got to turn this around and bring a W home."
Lehner, meanwhile, received positive news after dealing with a minor headache and symptoms in his neck following the team's game in Colorado on Saturday. Lehner said a blindside hit to the head from Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie was the primary source of his aches and pains, but said he felt fine after passing his tests and taking shots at the end of the morning skate.
"I wasn't worried that much," Lehner said. "It was a minor, minor, minor headache and just precautionary. I went through testing and wanted to do everything right."
The game on Tuesday will be Buffalo's last contest ahead of the trade deadline, which is Wednesday at 3 p.m. Extra uncertainty surrounds the Sabres given their back-to-back losses coming out of the bye week, which put them seven points out of a playoff spot with 20 games remaining.
"You've got to experience it," Sabres captain Brian Gionta said. "You've got to see what happens. You've got to understand the urgency coming into it, that changes are going to be made if you're not in position to be a playoff team. There's nothing that you can tell a guy to teach them that, they've just got to see."
The Predators enter Tuesday having won four of their last five games. Forsberg received NHL First Star of the Week honors on Monday after scoring back-to-back hat tricks and eight goals overall in a four-game span. He's scored 11 points (8+3) during a five-game point streak.
Coverage on Tuesday begins at 6:30 p.m. with the Tops Pregame Show on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops between the Sabres and Predators at 7 p.m.
Bylsma made some changes to his lines given the outcome of Buffalo's last three games, swapping Gionta and Sam Reinhart and promoting Evan Rodrigues to the third line. Here's how the full lineup looked on Tuesday morning:
56 Justin Bailey - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
9 Evander Kane - 15 Jack Eichel - 12 Brian Gionta
82 Marcus Foligno - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 23 Sam Reinhart
63 Tyler Ennis - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 26 Matt Moulson
29 Jake McCabe - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
77 Dmitry Kulikov - 47 Zach Bogosian
4 Josh Gorges - 6 Cody Franson
40 Robin Lehner
35 Linus Ullmark
31 Anders Nilsson