A goal is a goal is a goal.
First, second or third period, a puck in the net is always worth the same on the scoreboard, yet the Buffalo Sabres find themselves coveting the late variety a tad more these days.
The NHL's highest-scoring club has been outscored in the third period this season, 51-48, a stat that doesn't sit too well.
"That is a concern," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, whose team thrived in the third period last season. They ranked fourth in the league with 100 third-period goals while giving up 65, the second fewest.
As they venture into tonight's contest with the Tampa Bay Lightning in HSBC Arena, the Sabres have surrendered at least one third-period goal in 13 consecutive games, going 7-5 with an overtime loss.
Buffalo is ninth in third-period goals, but only three teams have been scored upon more frequently.
"It's an area where we have to be sharper," Sabres winger Jason Pominville said. "Maybe we're a little too loose in the third period, and that could cost us. I don't think it has really cost us too much yet, but it could be critical."
The Sabres do have the league's most prolific offense in the second period, outscoring opponents, 66-42. They also hold a 44-31 edge in the first period.
"I would like to see where we can balance that all out," Ruff said, "that we can create the number of chances in the third if we need to win it and create the number of chances to put games away because one-goal games are tough to hang onto in this league."
The Sabres were famous for their late-game heroics a few weeks into the season, the highlight coming Nov. 2 with a three-goal comeback inside the last nine minutes to beat the Boston Bruins.
Through 17 games the Sabres were outscoring opponents, 27-15, in the third. Over their next 27 games they have given up 33 goals, more than half of last season's total.
"We were real strong early in the year where, even if we got down, the third period was an area we were able to put pressure and get back in games," Ruff said. "But I think it all comes down to transition. If we're not sharp on transition, which is passing and getting up ice, our attack hadn't been good enough to generate the chances that would get us back into a game."
Ruff has been especially displeased with a transition game he called "lazy" in the Sabres' most recent HSBC Arena performances, defeats to the Pittsburgh Penguins last Saturday and the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday.
"It's a little bit of a sore spot with me, especially our last two home games," Ruff said. "I don't think our transition has been good enough.
"We look for the fancier play instead of getting it deep, going to work."
Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere agreed with Ruff's usage of the "lazy" label.
"When you start thinking that you're a little better than you really are and things are going to come easier than they happen," Briere said, "then you start cheating a little bit more and get lazy in a sense that you think, 'Well, if I don't make this play or if I'm not in good position, I'll get it next time.' That's what we have to try to be careful about."
The Sabres are comfortably atop the Eastern Conference, but have lost three of their past five games, their only such stretch this season, and two straight at home.
"And that's where we want to stop it, too," Ruff said. "We're accustomed to winning, and nobody should like the thought of losing. Now we've lost to Pittsburgh at home and Toronto at home. That's a strong enough message for everybody."
The Sabres' cushy status might be part of the problem. Their closest contenders are the New Jersey Devils and the Atlanta Thrashers. Both are nine points back. The Sabres have played the same number of games as the Devils and two fewer than Atlanta.
"When you start as well as we have, sometimes you let bad habits creep into your game," Briere said. "Lately, we've played a couple good games, two bad games, come back for two or three good games. We haven't shown the same consistency we'd shown the first two months of the season.
"Some of the aspects, like the transition, are things we're going to need in the playoffs to execute well and move on."