By Bill Hoppe
The question won’t go away. Not with hot rookie Jhonas Enroth winning every start. Not with decorated starter Ryan Miller enduring a career-worst slump.
Who’s really the Sabres’ No. 1 goalie?
The Sabres’ 5-1 win over the Ottawa Senators on Friday will only increase speculation. In his third start in four games, Enroth, the supposed backup, dazzled again, stopping 36 shots.
The 23-year-old Swede improved to 5-0 while lowering his goals-against average to 1.34 andraising his save percentage to .956.
Naturally, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff wouldn’t reveal which goalie will start tonight in Boston. Ruff said Friday morning he had set a goaltending schedule, although he’s already tweaked that a few times this year, including last Saturday in Ottawa, when he gave Enroth a second straight start.
This time, however, Ruff said, “We’re going to try to stick to it.”
Still, the Sabres have won four straight for the first time since April. Enroth has three of the wins. In Miller’s lone triumph, a 6-5 overtime decision Tuesday against Winnipeg, he allowed three early goals for the second straight start. Miller’s goal-against average over his five-game funk is 4.10.
Incredibly, Enroth’s 12-0-1 in his last 13 decisions going back to last season. He hasn’t lost in regulation since Nov. 24.
Does he feel unbeatable?
“Not really. I know I have to stay humble,” Enroth said. “Hockey is a sport that can turn around quick. I’m just trying to go out there and play every game like it was my last game.”
Enroth had plenty of help against the Senators, as the Sabres scored three first-period goals for the second straight contest. The Sabres also kept most of the shots to the outside. Ruff counted only five Ottawa scoring chances.
Fresh off Tuesday’s sloppy effort, the Sabres needed to clamp down before the capacity crowd of 18,690 fans inside the First Niagara Center.
“It was a lot better job with the puck,” Ruff said. “We supported it well. We played a smart, efficient game. We didn’t mismanage pucks in the neutral zone.”
Derek Roy opened the scoring at 2:09, and then Matt Ellis followed 16 seconds later, putting Senators goalie Craig Anderson on the bench after six shots.
After Sergei Gonchar’s power-play tally at 4:38, Jordan Leopold pinched in from the point, roofing a shot from the right circle past Alex Auld at 14:40.
“The start has been our focus over the last little while,” said Ellis, who hadn’t scored a regular-season goal since March 16, 2010. “We haven’t had, for a lack of a better term, the prettiest of starts here at home. That’s was something we wanted to change. We came out, we set the tone.”
Enroth made his best stop early in the second period, stoning Derek Smith with his right pad on a short-handed two-on-one.
“Jhonas has been unbelievable for us,” Ellis said. “He’s done a great job. You get that sense of confidence from him when he’s back in there. He’s done a great job coming in and stringing together some great games.”
Luke Adam and Ville Leino, with his first goal in 14 games, scored in the third period.
“It’s been waiting for a while,” said Leino, who last tallied on opening night.
In the five post-lockout seasons, the Sabres struggled mightily against the Senators, going 10-23-3. Now, the Sabres have finally turned the tables. With their second win in a week, they’re 7-1 against their Northeast Division rival dating back to last season.
Roy wowed in a 3-2 victory last Saturday, scoring a goal and the shootout winner. That performance ignited a torrid stretch for the center, who extended his point streak to four games (four goals, eight points) with his one-goal, three-point performance.
The 28-year-old, an elite player at his best, started slowly this year as be battled a sore hamstring and shoulder.
It’s no coincidence Roy’s wingers – Leino and Drew Stafford – are snapping out of their funks, too. Earlier this week, the linemates lamented their missed opportunities. With Stafford’s three assists, the trio combined for seven points Friday.
“We had a lot of chances, moved the puck around well, skated,” Roy said. “I think that’s just the main thing, skating and working for each other. When we get those chances, we just got to finish them like we did tonight.”