The groans could practically be heard all the way from Buffalo every time a Sabres' scoring chance was washed into Lake Michigan. The scary games for the Sabres are the ones in which they could easily be leading, 5-0, but instead find themselves one shot from trouble and two from defeat.
It wasn't until Maxim Afinogenov scored on a strange play about three minutes into the third period Wednesday that the Sabres secured a 2-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks in the United Center. The announced crowd of 14,041 left the building knowing it could have been much, much worse for the home team.
"It felt like it did six years ago when we were always in 1-0 and 2-1 games," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "You're hanging on knowing that one bad bounce could kill you."
Opportunities? Winger Jason Pominville thought he had his 20th goal wrapped up in the second period, which would have given the Sabres a two-goal lead. He had the puck in the high slot after a perfect feed from Afinogenov and Nikolai Khabibulin beaten glove side. His wrist shot rattled off the post and skipped along the goal line.
Scoring chances? Daniel Briere poked a rebound between Khabibulin's right pad and the post in the second period. The puck was trickling into the net before center Jeffrey Hamilton descended from his post in the slot and swept a sure score off the goal line.
"I was just hoping for it to cross the line," Briere said. "He made a good play to scoop it out and prevent the goal. It was one of those games where if the puck is rolling a little bit for us we could have easily scored four, five, six goals."
Ryan Miller stopped 34 shots for the victory. He lost the shutout with 50 seconds remaining when Denis Arkhipov scored short-handed. Miller kept the Sabres' one-goal lead intact in the second period with the Blackhawks charging and was solid until the final minute.
Jochen Hecht opened the scoring in the first period for Buffalo, which will play the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight at HSBC Arena.
For all the speed and stickhandling Afinogenov has tucked away, the goal he scored early in the third looked like it came in slow motion. He appeared harmless while moving around defenseman Lasse Hukkonen inside the blue line and still wasn't threatening until he found the far side from a bad angle.
"I just waited and waited," Afinogenov said. "I wanted to try to cut to the middle and there was no space there. I just tried to shoot. At first, I didn't see it was a goal. I saw [center Derek Roy] celebrate, so I knew it was in."
It made up for all the opportunities lost.
Buffalo skated into Chicago hoping to solve a few problems that cropped up in recent weeks. The power play had struggled, but it did everything but score on Wednesday night. Ruff wanted his defense to become more aggressive, and they pinched at every opportunity.
At some point, the Sabres figured they could topple the Bulin Wall. Khabibulin had been shaky in recent games, but he was back playing like a Stanley Cup winner. The Sabres peppered him with a good half-dozen scoring chances in the first period, and he limited them to a goal.
It's what was frightening for Buffalo.
"He played pretty well," Pominville said. "He was seeing the puck well. We had our opportunities and didn't score on him. I thought we moved the puck better than we had the last few games. We just have to find a way to score."
Hecht opened the scoring about five minutes into the game when he roofed a loose puck over Khabibulin. Briere started the play when he found Pominville with a cross-ice pass. Pominville was attempting to feed Hecht, but the puck bounced off Khabibulin's pad and onto Hecht's stick outside the crease.
The Sabres fired away while enjoying a four-on-three advantage, followed by a five-on-three for 41 seconds and a five-on-four but could not score. Finally, Afinogenov came through with his goal in the third.
"If you have the amount of power plays we had, you want to get a goal on those," Hecht said.