Who says you need a head coach to win a National Hockey League game?
Certainly not the Buffalo Sabres.
The Sabres, who did not have suspended coach John Muckler behind their bench, played some of their best hockey of the season in jumping off to a 5-1 lead over the Quebec Nordiques. Buffalo sat on its lead after that, but still held on for a 5-3 win before 14,899 in Memorial Auditorium on Tuesday night.
Muckler was home serving the first of a three-game suspension handed down by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Monday. Assistant coaches Don Lever and John Tortorella split Muckler's duties Tuesday, and they guided the Sabres to a win that put them back over the .500 mark (13-12-5).
"As soon as the puck dropped, you can't think about it," Donald Audette said about the coaching situation. "Muck (Muckler) can't skate for us out there. They don't play; we do."
Buffalo received a bit of a break four minutes into the game when Quebec lost starting goalie Jocelyn Thibault, who was injured in a collision with the Sabres' Wayne Presley. Stephane Fiset replaced him, and the Sabres started producing quality shots in bundles.
"We were getting the puck deep. Things started changing with a lot of cough-ups in the neutral zone, and we kept on coming," Tortorella said. "We played a half-ice game with them, and that's what turned the tide."
Starting with Yuri Khmylev's goal at the 6:03 mark, the Sabres scored five times within 21 minutes and 44 seconds. It was the team's fastest five-goal burst of the season as Dave Hannan, Donald Audette, Pat LaFontaine and Jason Dawe also scored. LaFontaine added two assists.
It was quite a switch for a team that had only scored 10 goals in losing four of its last five games.
"We said before the game that Quebec has a set of the best forwards in the league," defenseman Ken Sutton said. "But look at us. We have LaFontaine. We can throw (Alexander) Mogilny out there, Audette, (Derek) Plante. They're not slouches. We can put goals on the board. We just haven't done that this year. I don't know why. . . . We don't have to take a back seat to anybody when it comes to scoring goals."
The second half of the game was far different than the first. The Sabres became conservative, and the Nordiques started to play like the team with the league's best record.
"We're not used to having 5-1 leads," Lever said. "I think it's more mental that you back off. It's natural. We just couldn't turn it back on again.
"The reason why the Nordiques are the best team in the National Hockey League is that they don't quit. They kept coming. You've got to give the guys credit. They held on, and held on, and Dominik (Hasek) was again fantastic."
The Sabres' goalie became progressively busier as the night went on. After a mere nine shots on goal in the first period, Quebec had 14 in the second and a whopping 19 in the third to total 42.
"I've never had this many shots at the Aud before," Hasek said. "I don't mind as long as we win."
After trailing by four goals after two periods, the Nordiques scored twice to cut the margin in half. Scott Young had the second of his two goals -- he had 10 shots on the night -- and Mike Ricci had the other score.
The loss ended a four-game winning streak for the Nords, who were coming off an 11-goal explosion against Ottawa on Sunday.
The Sabres, meanwhile, picked up a needed win as the battle for playoff spots and position continues in the Eastern Conference.
"We have to win some hockey games," Hannan said. "We're in a situation where we're in a pack right now. These 18 games we've got left are going to be like playoff games. We've got to be very sharp."
The first of those 18 will be Thursday against Ottawa in the Aud.