The Sabres’ determination put them in position to win, but it was Mike Smith who carried Buffalo to victory.
The Phoenix Coyotes goaltender made the mistake of flying by the seat of his pants Monday night, a decision that delivered a 2-1 overtime win to the Sabres. Smith and teammate Martin Hanzel reached up to grab an airborne puck, and neither succeeded. Smith had no idea the puck landed in the back of his pants, so he slid into the net to block the goal line.
By doing so, he put the puck in the cage. The referees briefly conferred and awarded Mark Pysyk a game-winning goal.
“I knew the puck went up in the air, but I had no idea where it went after that,” Smith said in First Niagara Center. “I guess if they don’t see the puck they’re supposed to blow the whistle, but that’s not what happened.”
The Sabres gladly accepted the break. They worked to earn one.
For the first time in almost 33 years, Buffalo played two skaters shy of a full roster. They started with just 16, which coach Ted Nolan divided into nine forwards (three regular lines) and seven defensemen. The second-period ejection of right wing Drew Stafford cut the number to 15.
“That was a gutsy win for us, for sure,” Nolan said. “You’ve got to give this team a lot of credit. They had good perseverance. They kept at it.”
The Sabres hadn’t used 16 skaters since Jan. 7, 1981, when they managed to beat the Quebec Nordiques, 5-1. They won again, this time without defenseman Alexander Sulzer and forwards Marcus Foligno, Linus Omark and Ville Leino, who missed the game with flu-like symptoms.
“I’ve never played an NHL game like that, but sometimes you face tough circumstances,” Sabres forward Matt Moulson said. “This team pulled together and battled hard. That was a big emotional win.”
The extra workload up front was felt most by Moulson (23:36 of ice time), Steve Ott (22:02), Zemgus Girgensons (22:01) and Tyler Ennis (21:58). They’re happy the Sabres are starting a three-day holiday break. They could use the rest.
“It was probably the most tiring game,” Ennis said. “Even four lines in this league is tiring, so it just makes this win that much better. What a good team builder to come up with a win right before the holidays. What a great game.”
The Sabres, who visit Toronto on Friday, have earned at least a point in five of seven while going 4-2-1. They’ve won three straight at home for the first time since March 2012.
“Going into the break with this much emotion, being happy and stuff, it’s huge for us,” Girgensons said.
Phoenix opened the scoring 19 seconds into the second period, and Buffalo ended the shutout hopes of Smith with 5:59 remaining in regulation. It was a goal that was a long time coming for Ennis, who had several glorious chances before cashing one in.
The center took a pass from Girgensons to drive in alone on Smith and lifted the puck in before going airborne with a trip. He rose to his feet along with the crowd of 18,942.
“That felt so good,” Ennis said. “I missed a wide-open net. Smith robbed me. I was little frustrated. Z did a great job getting me the puck – he’s been playing so well – and when I saw it go in I was pumped.”
The Sabres lost Stafford to a major penalty and game misconduct after he lost his temper with Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Seconds after the players jostled with each other, they went for a puck in the corner. Stafford was in the lead, and when the players got near the puck Stafford threw his elbow back at the head of the Phoenix defenseman.
“I think he just tried to shoulder him off more so than the elbow, but it didn’t look good,” Nolan said.
The play merely gave the Sabres more to overcome, which gave them more to celebrate.
“Sometimes,” Moulson said, “it’s games like this that turn seasons around and tie the team closer together.”