As soon as Robin Lehner realized the puck slipped through him, he tilted his head toward the ice in disappointment.
Anders Lee's shot from the top of the slot trickled through the Sabres goaltender and into the net with 10:41 to play, and Lehner knew it was a big one. The goal snapped a 2-2 tie and helped the New York Islanders leave KeyBank Center with a 4-2 victory.
"Too bad it doesn’t touch one of our defensemen there," Lehner said. "I tried to find it. I have that shot 100 out of 100 times if I see it. If I see it, I’ll save it."
Lee sent the fans toward the exits with 5:27 remaining. Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe whiffed on a pass from behind the net, and Lee slipped the puck between Lehner's pads for his 31st of the year and a two-goal cushion.
Buffalo lost for the second straight game and fell to 32-34-12.
"We deserved a better fate," Lehner said. "I have to be better."
First time: Sabres left wing C.J. Smith celebrated his NHL debut with his first point. Evander Kane circled with the puck at his own blue line and hit Smith with a pass at the New York blue line. Smith returned the favor, hitting the streaking Kane in stride with a backhand. Kane finished the two-on-one, then pointed at Smith as the scoreboard changed to 1-1 with 9:52 left in the second period.
Smith became just the second Iowa-born player to appear in the NHL, joining goaltender Scott Clemmensen, according to Elias Sports. Smith is from Des Moines.
Signed last week out of UMass Lowell, the 22-year-old skated on a line with center Evan Rodrigues and right wing Brian Gionta. The captain was playing his 1,002nd NHL game, while Rodrigues and Smith entered with a combined 27 games.
Nylander on way: The Sabres may experience an NHL debut two days in a row. A source says Buffalo is promoting Alex Nylander from Rochester, and he could play Monday night when Toronto visits. The 19-year-old, who was scratched from Sunday's Amerks game, has nine goals, 18 assists and 27 points in 62 games
No time to celebrate: As the public-address announcer called out Smith’s point, the Islanders regained the lead. New York knocked away a Jack Eichel pass, sending Joshua Ho-Sang toward Lehner on a breakaway. He cut from the right side toward the middle, took a slash from Dmitry Kulikov and hit the brakes at the crease, allowing him to go back to the right and deposit his fourth goal in 16 NHL games.
Tie it: The Sabres made it 2-2 with 14:43 to play, converting a rush. Zemgus Girgensons reached out to tip Matt Moulson's pass for his seventh goal of the season. Girgensons had gone 23 games without a goal. Moulson has three assists in three games.
Repeat: One of Lehner’s weak spots showed up again midway through the first as New York opened the scoring. Cal Clutterbuck fired high from the right faceoff circle, and the shot soared over the left shoulder of the Sabres goaltender. The goal with 9:11 gone was Clutterbuck’s fifth in 62 games this season.
"The first goal shouldn’t happen," Lehner said. "I got caught cheating a little bit. It happens sometimes. Hockey’s a game of mistakes, and I’ve just got to be better."
Isles up: New York has had success when taking an early lead, entering the game with an 18-4-4 record when leading after one period. It held a 1-0 lead and a 12-6 shot edge after 20 minutes.
Back on the line: Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen returned after serving a three-game suspension. He skated alongside Jake McCabe. Defenseman Cody Franson, who was healthy enough to play after recovering from an upper-body injury, sat for the sixth straight game.
Dual debuts: The Isles also had a player making his NHL debut. They recalled 26-year-old Connor Jones to take Tavares’ spot on the roster. The Quinnipiac University product has spent four seasons in the minors.
Counting the house: The Sabres announced a sellout crowd of 19,070 on Family Appreciation Day.
Next: The Sabres get right back at it with their penultimate home game Monday. The rival Maple Leafs will make the drive from Toronto for a 7 p.m. start. The game will decide a winner in the season series. Toronto won the first two meetings, while Buffalo won the last two.