Normally when a goalie pitches a shutout he gets the next start and chances are the head coach will ride him until he cools off. Exceptions to that rule may include playing back-to-back nights or having the No. 1 goalie back in net no matter what the back up does but, "riding the hot hand" is usually what a head coach does especially if a team is in a 1A/1B situation with their netminders.
The Buffalo Sabres do have a No. 1 goalie in Carter Hutton but he and Linus Ullmark seem to be more of a 1A/1B than a 65/17 starter/backup tandem. Neither had a great 2018-19 season, especially in the second half when the team collapsed, and coming into camp new head coach Ralph Krueger stressed competition. Hutton got the start in the season opener, which isn't all that surprising considering the respect he garners on and off the ice, and after a 29-save, 3-1 win at Pittsburgh he got the start in the home-opener as well. The Sabres won that game 7-2 before a rollicking home crowd celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the franchise.
Krueger gave Ullmark the next start in Columbus and the 26 yr. old managed to salvage a point for Buffalo with a 40-save performance in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Blue Jackets and the duo have been rotating ever since. Which is rather curious considering Hutton blanked the Dallas Stars before the team embarked on their just completed three-game California road trip.
Usually the No. 1 goalie gets the first game of a back-to-back, which was what Buffalo was looking at to kick off the trip, and with Hutton coming off of a shutout most assumed that would be the case. However, Krueger went with Ullmark in what turned out to be a 5-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks. The next night Hutton shut out the Los Angeles Kings and with a day off between that game and the finale' in San Jose against the Sharks, all the norms pointed to him getting the start again. But that's not what Krueger and his coaching staff did.
"I don't know what's going on behind closed doors, truthfully," Hutton told the media after practice yesterday, with the NHL's 3rd Star of the Week adding, "honestly, I think they have a plan and they're sticking to it."
We've heard past coaches talk about a "goalie rotation" only to have them deviate from the plan. Former head coach Lindy Ruff was notorious for that and one of his few negatives after coaching in Buffalo for 14+ seasons was his goalie rotation. He rarely seemed to get it right.
The exact reasons for Krueger and his staff's decision to alternate goalies remains in the coaching room but Krueger did say (via a Mike Harrington tweet,) "I'm not really into norms and that kind of thinking." Perhaps there are a few things at play in the coaching room and competition may still be the driving force between these alternating starts. Maybe there's a belief that it helps keep both goalies sharp and it may also help keep the skaters sharp as it won't allow them to fall into bad habits while the team "rides the hot goalie." Anything from assistant coach/goalie coach Mike Bales having is finger on the pulse of his goalies to advanced stats, and all points in between, may factor in as well.
Whatever the case may be, it's working. The tandem of Hutton and Ullmark have combined for the NHL's sixth-best goals-against average (2.30) and fifth-best save percentage (.930) while the team is off to a 7-1-1 start.
Because of that hot start Krueger has been able to stick with his forward lines and pairings on defense.
Buffalo's forward lines have built chemistry amongst themselves and all four have contributed to the success of the team. The top line of Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson have been good while facing the oppositions best checking lines. Center Marcus Johansson and winger Jeff Skinner have formed quite the bond and they've managed to make Vladimir Sobotka into a decent top-six stop-gap despite him being placed in a spot well above his talent-level.
The Sabres most consistent line all season has been Johan Larsson centering Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo. The trio has been known for it's forecheck and ability to flip the ice but they've contributed a little offensively as well scoring the game-winning goal against the Sharks on Saturday. The Casey Mittelstadt/Jimmy Vesey/Conor Sheary line started out strong against Pittsburgh but faded for a while before breaking out the last two games.
On defense, Marco Scandella has looked like a different player with Henri Jokiharju as is d-partner while the rugged shut-down duo of Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe has been carrying a heavy load while playing against the best the opposition has to throw at them. They were together for large chunks last season and looked comfortable playing alongside each other. Sophomore Rasmus Dahlin has been paired with veteran Colin Miller who's helping the 19 yr. old navigate the NHL waters.
Most coaches change up their lines, some more than others and mostly after a loss where they may either need to change things up or have a built in excuse to mix it up.
To his credit, Krueger has kept things intact even after dreadful games at Columbus and at Anaheim and the only change he made was due to injury and that involved bringing in a player for same spot on the same line. His players have responded well with an NHL fifth-best 21 goals scored 5v5.
--The Sabres hit the KeyBank Center ice tonight for their portion of a 2,700 mile home-and-home with the Sharks and they have a lot of things working for them including a 7-2-1 record in their last 10 home games against San Jose.
--Eichel's line has grown cold the last two games with zero 5v5 points but the Mittelstadt line has started to heat up with six even-strength points (3+3) in the last two games.
--Buffalo's powerplay has taken a dive since scoring on their first opportunity in Anaheim. Since that goal by Olofsson Buffalo is 1/3 with the second powerplay unit accounting for their only goal (Mittelstadt)
--Nineteen players have dressed for the Sabres and all but one (Evan Rodrigues) have at least one point. Twelve players have scored at least one goal with Girgensons joining that group last Saturday
--Miller and Johansson lead the Sabres in plus/minus with a plus-6 while Eichel and Olofsson are worst at minus-3 each
--It's not surprising that Eichel and Olofsson are at the bottom in plus/minus. Although Olofsson leads the team in goals with six, all of them have come on the powerplay while Eichel leads all Buffalo forwards with 20:42 of ice-time and has scored two of his four goals with the man advantage.
--Hutton has the league's best goals against-average (1.39) and best save percentage (.953)