Dan Bylsma looked up at the scoreboard, saw the Sabres in a two-goal deficit with 11 minutes to go Saturday and thought maybe – just maybe – the game was over. Then the coach looked along the bench at his players. He noticed the resolve that has been in place since the preseason.
“There’s no sag in our team,” Bylsma said Sunday. “There’s no droop in our shoulders. We keep on playing. We keep on playing the right way and think we can win hockey games and come back playing that way.”
Buffalo’s belief in itself is well-founded. Including Saturday’s 6-3 comeback victory against Boston, the Sabres have four wins when trailing after two periods. Only the Los Angeles Kings (five) have more.
“We kind of have that mindset where we don’t look back,” forward Marcus Foligno said after practice in First Niagara Center. “We keep going after teams. It’s a never-quit mentality. We play that desperate hockey, and that’s where we’re at our best.”
Indeed, the Sabres head into Monday’s home game against Washington as one of the NHL’s best third-period teams. They’ve scored 40 of their 84 goals during the final 20 minutes, tied with the Capitals for second most behind Dallas (50). The Sabres have trailed after two periods in 20 of their 35 games, and they’ve come back to get points in six of them.
Saturday’s game in Boston will likely remain the most memorable. Buffalo scored five times in the final 9:39 to turn a 3-1 deficit into the 6-3 victory.
“Our group never gives up, and we proved it against a good hockey team,” forward Nicolas Deslauriers said. “For sure, we don’t want to be trailing in the third, but we have confidence in our group.”
The comeback mentality began as soon as the puck dropped in preseason. Buffalo trailed, 2-1, entering the third period of its opening exhibition but rallied for a 3-2 victory in Minnesota. During the final preseason game, the Sabres were in a 5-0 deficit against Columbus but scored four times in the third period to pull within one before losing, 6-4.
The rallies continued when the regular season started. Buffalo has earned 2-1 victories over Detroit, Toronto and the New York Islanders despite entering the third period in a 1-0 hole. They also trailed 1-0 in a 2-1 overtime loss to San Jose, and they were in a 3-2 third-period deficit during a 5-4 shootout loss to the Red Wings.
“We don’t think we’re out of a game, and we have shown we can fight back and get goals,” Bylsma said. “We got down by two goals in games and we don’t seem to panic or sink our shoulders down or think, ‘Oh, it’s 20 minutes left to go in a game. It’s over. We’ll get the next one.’ We have maybe even more resolve to keep on playing, keep on fighting, keep on going.”
The comeback ability is a team-wide trend. During the six games in which Buffalo erased third-period deficits to get at least a point, eight players have scored and 13 recorded assists.
Ryan O’Reilly leads the way. He has scored eight of his 14 goals during third periods, including four in the six comeback games. Overall, he has four tying goals, three go-ahead goals and two game-winners.
“He’s just one of those guys that lays it all out there every day,” defenseman Jake McCabe said. “In practice, he’s out there first, he’s leaving last, and that’s just kind of his mentality. There’s no quit in his game.
“I know that we’ve had good third periods this year. Even if we’re down we continue to be resilient and show that will to score and make plays. We’ve got big-time playmakers that just keep showing up like Ryan.”
The Sabres says there’s no magic third-period formula. Their second intermissions when trailing are the same as any other break.
Despite their ability to erase deficits, it would not be wise to trail the Capitals. Washington, which leads the Eastern Conference with a 26-6-2 record, is 18-0-0 when leading after two. The Sabres are on a 4-1-1 run that has bumped their record to 15-16-4.
“We’ve got good leaders on this team, and they’re saying the right things in the room,” McCabe said. “We just go out there, stick to our systems and don’t go away from that. You can’t go off on your own page and try to do it all yourself. The goals we scored showed that. We had forecheck goals. We had dirty goals, and that’s what it’s going to take to continue this good little stretch we’ve been on.”