For a long time Tuesday night, it was pretty clear to see the sobering difference between the Buffalo Sabres and an opponent that thinks it can win the Stanley Cup.
The Sabres didn't belong on the same ice as the San Jose Sharks for long stretches of the game in KeyBank Center. It was Buffalo's second game in two nights and there was little jump, little energy. When they were in a 4-1 hole nine minutes into the third period, the Sabres were about to fall into last place in the Eastern Conference. And that's nowhere near where anyone in this organization feels they should be at this point in their rebuild.
But in what has to rate as one of the most exhilarating stretches of hockey downtown in several years, everything suddenly changed.
Ryan O'Reilly scored a power-play goal on a Jack Eichel feed. Evander Kane pushed home a wraparound and Sam Reinhart fed Kyle Okposo to magically tie the game with 7:29 left and cap a wild stretch of just 3 minutes, 28 seconds.
All that was left was for Kane to take an Eichel pass on a 2-on-1 break and beat Martin Jones 65 seconds into overtime.
Buffalo 5, San Jose 4. How did that happen? It really defied explanation.
"This is a game we have to learn how to play in and learn how to win in," said coach Dan Bylsma. "You felt like this is a game where we're playing the big boys, playing a good team, a team that's heavy on sticks. ... We didn't come back against a poor team. We came back against one of the better teams in the league. It should be a big boost for our guys."
The Sharks toyed with the Sabres at times and Buffalo got booed off the ice at the end of a second period that saw them in a 3-1 hole with the Sharks holding a 31-18 edge in shots on goal.
When Joe Pavelski rifled home a one-timer from Brent Burns with 13:53 left to put Buffalo in a three-goal hole, plenty of Blue & Gold supporters in the crowd of 18,462 decided they would need a bigger boat against the Sharks and headed for the exits.
What fun they missed.
"We got the building going and some energy in here after they were booing us off the ice," said a smirking Eichel. "We win a game in overtime and everyone loves us again, so it's interesting how that works."
Now, before you go assuming Eichel was dissing the fan base, he was quick to admit the first two periods left a lot to be desired.
"We never feel like we're out of games. We've done it a couple times this year," he said. "As a group, we can do a better job of playing 60 minutes. If anything, our team should use that as some confidence. We need to look at that third period, the way we played. We played fast, put them on their heels for 15 minutes at least. We made it hard on them. I just think that's how we need to play."
The game marked the Sabres' first win when trailing by three goals since a 4-3 victory over the New York Islanders on Dec. 27, 2014.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the latest the Sabres had started a three-goal comeback since a 5-4 shootout win at Boston on Nov. 2, 2006. But Elias also noted it was one of just two non-shootout wins in franchise history where Buffalo trailed by three or more in the final 11 minutes.
The other came at Pittsburgh on March 10, 1976 when the Sabres reversed a 6-2 deficit with five goals in the final 8:35 to pull out a 7-6 win. Gilbert Perreault notched the tying and winning goals in that one.
Tuesday's game-winner came as Eichel circled behind his own net and quickly burst up the ice. He pulled away from Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl and burned Marc-Edouard Vlasic with a beautifully feathered pass as Kane popped the puck over Jones into the the top corner of the net.
That's a toasting of four key San Jose players from the team that took Pittsburgh to Game Six of the Stanley Cup final last June. Was there any chance of them catching up?
"Not at all. That's not being cocky. That's just being honest," said Kane, whose 16 goals are one off Okposo's team lead. "When I saw Jack around the net, I knew just to get to the middle of the ice, he was going to beat his man, I was going to beat mine, he was able to feather one through and I was able to put it away."
"Kaner has a lot of speed and he got to that far post and I just tried to put it on his stick," Eichel said. "It's a great finish by him to go up under the bar in tight like that."
Kane tripped over Jones' right pad and took a crushing dive into the end boards after scoring the goal. It looked like his right wrist took the brunt of the fall as he met reporters with his hand wrapped in a towel, insisting he was fine.
The Sabres seized momentum on the O'Reilly goal because they got another power play even as that puck entered the net. When Jones lost his stick and Melker Karlsson slid it back to him, the San Jose forward got a throwing-the-stick minor. Buffalo didn't score on the power play but kept the pressure on and Kane tallied 33 seconds after the penalty ended.
Kane got the chance to be a hero with the wraparound goal that made it 4-3 and made everyone in the building and on the bench believe the comeback was possible.
"I was just trying to beat him to the post as much as I could," Kane sid. "Any time you do a wraparound, that's what you're trying to do to a goalie. I was able to get it up, catch him and not hugging the post maybe as tight."
By the end of the night, the Sabres' hope tank had to be once again growing. They've now beaten both teams from the Cup final at home this season. Not a bad little accomplishment.
"That's probably the worst we've played and still gotten a win," Okposo said. "We just have to bottle this winning feeling. We just have to win games."