Robin Lehner couldn’t have started even if the Sabres wanted him in net. But with Carolina in town, it made sense to hand the crease to Chad Johnson. The goaltender delivered again.
Backed by Jack Eichel’s last-second goal, Johnson improved to 6-1 against the Hurricanes with a 3-2 overtime victory. The netminder made 28 saves as Carolina outshot Buffalo, 30-24. Johnson stopped 11 shots in the third period, including a diving glove save on Jay McClement that earned hearty applause from the First Niagara Center crowd both live and after the replay.
Johnson has a .930 save percentage in his seven career appearances against Carolina.
Lehner, meanwhile, sat on the bench after skipping Friday’s practice for a maintenance day with a minor injury.
“He was capable to back up,” coach Dan Bylsma said.
The winner: The crowd saw Eichel breaking free. So did Evander Kane, who lofted a long backhand that landed just in front of Eichel in the Hurricanes’ zone. With the fans on their feet in anticipation, Eichel easily beat goaltender Cam Ward between the legs with only one second left on the clock for his second goal of the game and 22nd of the season.
Kane to Reinhart to Eichel: The Sabres took a 2-1 lead with 15:04 to play when their top line went to work in the offensive zone. Kane slipped a pass to Sam Reinhart, who hit the brakes near the net to shake defenseman Jaccob Slavin. Eichel easily deposited Reinhart's pass.
Another penalty not killed: The Sabres gave up a power-play goal for the sixth straight game, allowing the Hurricanes to forge a 2-2 tie with 10:59 left. Point man Riley Nash found Victor Rask in the slot, and he went around Johnson with a backhand.
Carolina strikes first: After withstanding some pressure early in the second period, the Hurricanes opened the scoring with 6:42 gone. Jeff Skinner entered the zone with speed but was knocked down by Josh Gorges and Rasmus Ristolainen. The puck slid past the outstretched arm of Johnson, with Phillip Di Guiseppe recovering and lifting the puck over the prone goaltender.
Quick tie: The Sabres needed just 1:10 to knot the score at 1-1. Brian Gionta’s forecheck forced a turnover deep in the Carolina zone, with the puck sliding to Marcus Foligno in the slot. He buried a low shot for his ninth goal of the season.
Foligno continued a hot streak at home. He had five goals and eight points in the last eight appearances downtown. Gionta has points in Buffalo’s last three games overall.
Slow start: The Sabres and Hurricanes entered the first intermission in a 0-0 tie, a score that reflected the lack of scoring chances generated. Buffalo took just five shots, including only one in the opening 16 minutes. Johnson made the best saves of the period, stopping Victor Rask from the slot after a turnover and pushing aside Phillip Di Giuseppe’s rebound chance with 2:10 left.
OneBuffalo: Evander Kane acted as if he played for the Bills rather than the Sabres during a second-period penalty. As Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin reached up for an airborne puck near center ice, Kane grabbed him by the neck for a hard tackle. Kane went to the penalty box for holding.
Heavy turnover: It’s been only three seasons since Nathan Gerbe played for the Sabres, but the Carolina forward didn’t have much catching up to do with old friends. The only players in the Buffalo lineup who were teammates were Foligno and defenseman Mark Pysyk.
Day games, season nearly done: The 1 p.m. start featured the 10th of the Sabres’ 11 afternoon games. The final one is against Winnipeg on March 26. The Sabres have five home games and seven road games remaining.
Counting the house: Though plenty seats went unused, the Sabres announced their 11th sellout of the season with 19,070 tickets sold.
Next: For the first time this month, the Sabres have nothing on their schedule. Buffalo will take Sunday off after a stretch of seven games in 12 days. The Sabres will practice Monday and Tuesday before hosting Montreal on Wednesday night.
“I’m not sure that we’re going to be comfortable with the next three or four days where we have a day and two days of practice,” Bylsma said. “We’ve played a lot of hockey. We’ve played back-to-backs, some travel mixed in there.”