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Mike Harrington: Reinhart's play matching his shiny Classic garb

At this point, putting the Sabres in those beautiful Winter Classic sweaters that they wore Thursday night in half-empty KeyBank Center is akin to putting lipstick on a pig.

The Sabres are who they are. They're the worst team in the Eastern Conference and they're just waiting for Jason Botterill to start their teardown in advance of the trade deadline. (Memo to the GM: Any time now. Doesn't have to wait until the 26th, especially with Evander Kane looking like he'll never score again.)

The standings are pointless and the draft lottery rules now make rooting for last place mostly inconsequential. The rest of the way has to be about gleaning small snippets of good feelings.

There are some to find. Jack Eichel could be on the way to his first point-a-game season. Casey Nelson is (finally) a guy who came up from Rochester and looks like he should stick around. And Sam Reinhart is on the best stretch of his NHL career.

Nelson looks good as Sabres' first line of defense

Reinhart banged home the game-winning goal from the dirty area in front of the net with 4:14 left Thursday as the Sabres survived a blown three-goal lead and beat the New York Islanders, 4-3. He has a goal and four assists in the last two games but has been good for several weeks now.

Reinhart has 13 points in his last 10 games (4-9) and 15 points in his last 16 games (6-9). That dates back to the Winter Classic Jan. 1 in New York and that's the line in the sand for his season.

When Reinhart hit New York, he had no points in his previous eight games – and just one measly assist in his previous 16 games. For the season, he was at just 11 points in 38 games. But Reinhart scored a second-period power play goal in the overtime loss to the Rangers in Citi Field and it seemed to roust his season.

"It's the jerseys, wearing the jerseys," Reinhart joked Thursday.

Reinhart said he legitimately liked the sweaters with the classic royal blue piping but understood the question, too.

"I've played in some pretty big games," he said, referring to the epochal 2015 World Junior Championship for Team Canada. "That one maybe was not as nerve-racking as some of the ones I've been in but the stage was definitely the biggest. So to be able to find it there when obviously a lot of people are watching helps the confidence.

"Throughout the season, you look for a spark and that's probably the spark, the spot you look back and see where things started to turn around."

Reinhart had insisted for several games prior to that he was feeling better and simply not getting points. His feeling has been borne out.

"He's getting to the net, getting a little bit more physical," Eichel said. "Getting tenacious. He's starting to build that confidence. He's a really skilled player who doesn't get as much credit for his skill level and hockey IQ as he deserves. When he gets going, he can be a huge part of our team."

"He's making some really strong plays down low," said coach Phil Housley. "He's been really heavy in the battle there, been slippery along the wall. I think his wall play has gotten way better in our own zone."

Reinhart was a bull on the winning goal, outworking Islanders defenseman Dennis Seidenberg and winger Anthony Beauvillier to bang the puck past Jaroslav Halak on the backhand. The goal came just 73 seconds after Anders Lee capped the Isles comeback from a three-goal deficit with a power-play goal that had to leave the Sabres shell-shocked.

The five-game homestand that ended at 1-3-1 was a frustrating one. Especially coming after the three-game sweep in Western Canada. And it was also the biggest statement made in years by a disaffected fan base. They spoke with their feet – by not showing up. The crowds for last week's loss to Florida and for Thursday's game were easily the worst in the house since the bankruptcy era 15 years ago. I'd bet only around 10,000 or so were there Thursday.

"It's frustrating because they've stuck with us for so long here," Eichel said. "Obviously it's not been the best season in terms of wins and losses. You really can't blame them at this point. It's not like we're putting the best product on the ice. Hopefully if we start winning here with a couple months left, we start getting the people back in here and they start getting excited about it."

It will be tough to get many wins. The Sabres stand a good chance of becoming regular pinatas the rest of the way.

They have nine games left – yes, nine – against Atlantic Division juggernauts Toronto (4), Tampa Bay (3) and Boston (2). That's just plain cruel. Also still on the docket are two games apiece against defending Western Conference champion Nashville and defending Presidents' Trophy champion Washington. Also slated are KeyBank visits by upstart Vegas and Patrick Kane-led Chicago, which is somehow last in the Central Division but hasn't lost to the Sabres since 2009.

So good luck with all of that, boys. At least some of those opponents will help put bodies in seats.

"We're going to have to earn the fans' trust because we haven't given them a lot to cheer about," Housley said. "Tonight was a good win to come back and finish, not break, stay the course and find a way to win."

Sporting their Winter Classic sweaters, Jack Eichel celebrates his first-period goal with teammate Rasmus Ristolainen. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

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