Since the third game of the season, the Buffalo Sabres have looked at the standings every day and noticed more regulation losses than wins next to their team name. They finally did something about it.
Drew Stafford scored with 1:48 left in overtime Saturday night, giving the Sabres a 2-1 victory over Phoenix and something even better. The goal gave them an 18-18-5 record, a .500 mark in the win-regulation loss column that they'd been trying to achieve for three months.
"It's huge, not only to cap off our first big road trip, and also we're back at .500 here," Stafford said.
The Sabres closed their three-game road trip with a 2-0-1 record, earning five of a possible six points. They've played five of their last six on the road, and they went 4-1-1 with two trips West sandwiching a New Year's Day home game.
"Five out of six was good," coach Lindy Ruff said. "We've put a little push together."
The Sabres spent the night in Glendale and were scheduled to return home this afternoon. They don't play again till Tuesday, when they host the Philadelphia Flyers in HSBC Arena. It will be just their second home game since Dec. 23.
"We had a good step there," Stafford said. "It's just a matter of carrying into home play next week."
Stafford couldn't see Phoenix goaltender Jason LaBarbera when he released the winning goal, so it stands to reason LaBarbera didn't see the shot. It slipped past the netminder, moving the Sabres to 13-3-3 against backup goalies and drawing a huge cheer from the Buffalo backers among the 13,905 in Jobing.com Arena.
"I was just trying to get a screen shot through," Stafford said. "I didn't really see the goalie at all. I was just trying to shoot it through a hole and get it on net. It happened to sneak in. It feels pretty good."
The Sabres' power-play unit struck for the fourth straight game to open the scoring in the second period. Tim Connolly drew the faceoff following Wojtek Wolski's tripping penalty back to Jordan Leopold. After getting a return pass from fellow defenseman Tyler Myers, Leopold fired from the point and found the net through Thomas Vanek's screen.
Aside from plenty of saves by goaltender Ryan Miller, Leopold's goal was the Sabres' only highlight of the period. The Coyotes took over.
Phoenix, which was in a 13-6 shot hole following the first period, ended the second with a 25-20 edge and a 1-1 tie. Scottie Upshall knotted the game with 7:29 to go, just after Luke Adam's tripping penalty expired.
The Coyotes' second-period dominance, which resulted in the home team taking 19 of the 26 shots, shined through during the final 90 seconds. They hemmed the Sabres in their zone, with the puck unable to cross the blue line and Buffalo's players unable to get to the bench.
The extended, energy-sapping shifts for Mike Grier (2:47), Paul Gaustad (1:41), Steve Montador (1:37), Leopold (1:37) and Adam (1:33) left the five players bent over when time finally expired, their sticks on their knees as they tried to catch their breath.
Miller also coasted toward center ice with his head down, though his stellar saves on Upshall and captain Shane Doan, among others, allowed his team to keep its head up entering the third period tied, 1-1.
"They turned it up in the second, and we kind of just hung on," Grier said. "Sometimes you've got to do that on the road. Teams get momentum. You've just got to kind of hope to weather the storm and get out of it and get the chance to regroup in the intermission. I think we did that. Millsie made some big saves, and I think we came out in the third and had a pretty good effort."
The Sabres dressed seven defensemen again, but they used a different combination. Chris Butler played for the first time since Dec. 18, a stretch of seven games on the bench. He replaced injured blue-liner Mike Weber, who sat for the first time Nov. 20.
"[Weber] blocked a shot in the San Jose game [Thursday] and got hurt," Ruff said. "He's going to be out a period of time. I don't know exactly how long. It's one of those upper body, outer extremity things."
>Sabres 2,Coyotes 1 (OT)
Slap shots: Sabres close road trip with 2-0-1 record, move to 18-18-5 on season. … Stafford scores with 1:48 left in overtime to move Sabres to 3-5 in OT. … Miller makes 33 saves, including 18 in second period.
Fast fact: The last time the Sabres were even in the win-regulation loss column was at 1-1 after two games.
Next game: Philadelphia Flyers, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in HSBC Arena.