Two months ago, Linus Ullmark might have been the one of the last goalies on people’s minds to be a viable option in net for the Sabres this early in the season.
Offseason surgery on both of his hips was expected to keep him out until at least November. Even if he did rehab quickly, the 22-year-old rookie had never even played a game in North America.
But here we are on Oct. 24, and Ullmark is set make his first start in net for the Sabres against the New Jersey Devils at First Niagara Center.
“It’s not what I expected from the season to start,” Ullmark said. “It’s just fun to be here, it’s a great opportunity for me to be able to play with these guys and practice with them and just try to learn something every day. I’m very excited for what’s to come.”
Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B and Bell TV. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550. Puck drop is scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday is also Hockey Fights Cancer Night presented by Roswell Park Cancer Institute and fans are encouraged to be in their seats prior to puck drop for pregame ceremonies (more information on the night can be found here).
Ullmark’s rise to the NHL has come so fast that even he is surprised. The coaches who saw him in Training Camp, however, aren’t. Ullmark rehabbed ahead of schedule and practiced for two weeks in camp, during which Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said there were absolutely no issues with his health.
Even in those practices, there was a sign or two that suggested he might be ready to play in the League.
“Mhm. Yes, there was,” Bylsma said, smiling and nodding. “I’m not good enough to tell you what that was, but yes, he was very good in his preseason work and his practices. He was excellent.”
There was, however, still the issue of inexperience in North America, and once he was cleared to play, Ullmark had to adjust to the game with Rochester in the American Hockey League. He made 110 saves in three games, good for fifth in the AHL. A few of those he literally made using his head.
“He looks good and solid,” Bylsma said. “In all three of the games he played, the report was that he was the best player on the ice.”
Ullmark needed those games in Rochester to get acclimated to the North American game, which is played on a smaller ice surface than in Europe. But in other ways, Ullmark’s experience playing in the Swedish Hockey League actually makes him more prepared than the average rookie coming out of junior hockey.
“He’s played pro hockey,” Bylsma said. “He [hadn’t] played in North America, but he’s played pro hockey … Getting three games and playing in a smaller rink and playing North American hockey was big for him and big for him to get tested in that way.”
“I just think that what I did back in Sweden helped me a lot here and now we’re just going to take a few more steps to try and win these games as much as possible,” Ullmark said.
DEVILS TAKING THEIR TIME
By now, the New Jersey Devils have to be 3-on-3 experts. New Jersey has played into overtime in four-straight games. They’ve won their last three, most recently with a 5-4 shootout win over the Ottawa Senators on Thursday.
Forward Lee Stempniak has been the driving force for the Devils during their winning streak. Stempniak, a native of West Seneca, N.Y., scored in OT to give New Jersey their first win of the season against the New York Rangers on Sunday, assisted on Adam Larsson’s OT goal against the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday, and tied the game with 32 seconds to play prior to scoring the deciding shootout goal in Ottawa.
Cory Schneider is expected to start in net for New Jersey. Schneider is 3-1-1 on the season with a .927 save percentage and 2.14 goals-against average.
HOCKEY FIGHTS CANCER NIGHT
Saturday will be a special night for everyone in attendance at First Niagara Center as hockey continues its fight against cancer, including the coaches and players.
“I like wearing pink all year long because of it,” Bylsma said. “I know for our team tonight and I know for a few more of our players, we’ve been touched by it and it will be significant for us.”
Fans can print out placards to share who they’re fighting for and find more information on Hockey Fights Cancer Night here.