In a game between the NHL's two biggest surprises, it shouldn't have been a surprise the battle went down to the wire.
The Carolina Hurricanes needed six shootout rounds Sunday to finally dispatch the weary Buffalo Sabres, 4-3, in the RBC Center. The Sabres earned their third point in less than 24 hours, having beaten Florida the night before.
"I thought we did a hell of a job," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "From the start of the game to the bitter end, the desperation was there."
Sabres goalie Ryan Miller lost his first breakaway drill when sixth shooter Eric Staal scored the third tally. Miller won his first three shootouts.
Maxim Afinogenov kept the shootout alive for the Sabres by scoring in the third round, and Derek Roy gave them a chance to win by putting them ahead in the fifth round. But Justin Williams beat Miller, and then Hurricanes goalie Martin Gerber stymied Jason Pominville to set the stage for Staal.
"It's north and south pole," Ruff said of shootouts. "When you win you feel great, but when you lose it, it's like you've lost 10 games in a row."
J.P. Dumont had two goals, and Roy scored late in the second period to give the Sabres a lead. But the Eastern Conference leaders struck early in the third to force a rousing, back-and-forth overtime that had the crowd of 18,730 swiveling their heads as if they were watching a tennis match.
Miller stopped all seven shots he faced in overtime and 30 shots overall. Hurricanes goalie Martin Gerber, on his way to the Olympics for Switzerland, made 17 saves.
"We didn't quit, and we got a big point," Dumont said. "But we know what winning tastes like now, and we want to keep doing it. We should have won that game. It was a big point, but we're still [upset], and I like that a lot about our room."
The Sabres hit the Olympic break having won seven of their last nine games, with one overtime and one shootout loss. They haven't lost in regulation since Jan. 21 at the Calgary Flames. They haven't lost in regulation at home since Jan. 7 against the New Jersey Devils.
"Our guys have done an unbelievable job," Ruff said. "To get 16 of our last 18 points is something to be proud of. Their heads should be held high."
Carolina took advantage of some Buffalo sloppiness to open the scoring with 3:44 remaining in the first period.
Miller went behind the net to play the puck, but it skipped over his stick. With four Sabres at the top of the crease, a clear attempt went right to defenseman Niclas Wallin inside the blue line. Wallin stepped in and fired a rising slap shot through traffic for his third goal.
Dumont tied the score at 7:36 of the second period. Afinogenov passed to Dumont in the right circle, where he shot over Gerber's shoulder.
Sixty seconds later, the Hurricanes regained the lead thanks to another bounce. Staal attempted to pass from the boards and through the slot to Erik Cole. Sabres defenseman Toni Lydman broke it up but kicked the puck right to Hurricanes forward Cory Stillman a few feet away. Stillman quickly fed Cole, who was alone and in tight on a helpless Miller.
Buffalo seemed to find its legs as the second period progressed and took over, scoring the next two goals and hitting a couple of posts by the intermission.
"When it came to competing in the trenches," Ruff said, "there was a lot of fire there."
After the Sabres looked listless on their first six power plays, Dumont finally made good on their seventh.
Dumont was at the top of the crease where he fished out an Ales Kotalik rebound and scored on a croquet shot, sending the puck through Hurricanes defenseman Aaron Ward's legs, banking it off his right skate and then through Gerber's legs.
Dumont, who missed 28 games with a sports hernia, has three goals and one assist in his last two games and 10 goals on the season.
"We've had a big stretch before the Olympics," he said. "You can't ask for any better."
Roy gave Buffalo its first lead 57 seconds after Dumont's power-play goal. A strange carom in the Carolina corner put the puck on Afinogenov's stick. Gerber stopped the initial shot, but the rebound went to Roy on the other side of what was an open net.
Roy has three goals and five assists in his last eight contests and hasn't gone consecutive games without at least one point since Jan. 1 and 5.
Afinogenov's second assist gave him his third multipoint game in four tries. His 28 assists and 42 points are career-highs already.
Carolina evened the score 5:07 into the third period when Williams deflected a Ray Whitney shot from the point just as Buffalo had killed off a penalty.