The objective has been simple for the Buffalo Sabres the past two games. To get a win, all they had to do was earn a tie during the final 20 minutes. They didn't have to outscore their opponents in the third period. They didn't have to shut them out. They just had to match them for 20 minutes.
They couldn't do it. So instead of a two-game winning streak that would have been a sure thing earlier in the season, the Sabres have to carry a three-game losing skid around for a few days.
For the second straight night, the Sabres entered the final period with a one-goal lead. For the second straight night, it evaporated. The New York Islanders struck three times in the third period Saturday, shocking the Sabres, 5-3, in Nassau Coliseum.
The Sabres entered the All-Star break 24-1-2 when leading after 40 minutes. They were locking down victories almost as well as anyone. Now only Ottawa (four) has more regulation losses than the Sabres (three) when leading after two periods.
"We're finding ways to lose instead of finding ways to win right now," Sabres right wing Jason Pominville said.
The fatal blows Saturday hardly looked lethal when they left the Islanders' sticks. Arron Asham tied the game at 3-3 with 13:07 left on a slap shot from the blue line. It went between the pads of goaltender Ryan Miller.
The 15,128 fans shockingly jumped out of their seats when Randy Robitaille scored the game winner with 3:09 to play. The Islanders center blocked a clearing attempt at the blue line and just dumped the puck toward the net. It went untouched into the far side of the goal.
"You probably want both those goals back," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "Early in the year when we had some tough nights in goal, we scored enough goals. But it's a team game, and nights like that you have to be able to come back, you have to be able to get one late to help him out."
The Sabres had Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro down and out with two minutes to play, but they couldn't jam the puck home. Andy Hilbert ended the Sabres' chances when he scored with 53.9 seconds left.
The Sabres have won only two of their last eight games, falling to 2-5-1. They are also assured of a losing record in January; they fell to 5-7-1 this month with one game remaining.
"It seems when you're in a funk, those two shots find a way to go in," Sabres co-captain Chris Drury said.
The Sabres built their 3-2 lead with help from their resuscitated power play. Jochen Hecht tied the game at 2 early in the middle period with his second goal of the game. It was the Sabres' third power-play goal in two games after getting the same total in the previous six.
Ales Kotalik put the Sabres ahead for the only time with 7:35 to play in the second. Daniel Paille did the legwork, carrying the puck into the Islanders' zone and pushing it to the front of the net. A video review confirmed the referee's call that Kotalik's deflection found the top corner.
Trent Hunter, easily the game's first star, started the scoring 7:42 in with an inspired unassisted goal. He buried Brian Campbell to get the puck in his own end, then went around Toni Lydman and Kotalik before putting his backhand by Miller.
Hecht's first goal with five minutes left in the first tied the game. Asham gave the Isles the lead back with his first goal early in the second. Hecht and Kotalik answered, but just like in Friday's 3-2 loss at Columbus, the Sabres' one-goal advantage failed to hold up.
"Once they do tie it, there is a little frustration," Pominville said. "But we put that behind us and try to get the next one, and lately we haven't been able to do that."