The Buffalo Sabres played a playoff game Tuesday night. It doesn't matter that the calendar reads January and the postseason starts in April.
Their game against the Phoenix Coyotes had all the fixings for playoff hockey at its finest: Strong defense on both sides, good special teams, few penalties, no fights.
The only reminder that the Sabres' game against the Coyotes was just a regular-season matchup between two of the league's best defensive teams was the score, a 1-1 tie before 18,595 fans in Marine Midland Arena. An argument could be made that both deserved to win.
"It was a tough, tight game," Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek said. "Defense was a priority in this game for both teams. It was like a playoff game. Both teams played well defensively, and both teams scored on the power play."
Curtis Brown's man-advantage goal with 9:34 remaining in the third period lifted the Sabres into the tie in their first game since the NHL All-Star break. Keith Tkachuk scored on the power play in the first period.
In the second half of the season, teams make sure they take care of their own end before thinking about offense. Phoenix, which beat the Sabres, 1-0, on Jan. 11, put on a near-flawless defensive display for the second straight game against Buffalo. The Sabres appeared frustrated at times, but they played equally well in their own zone.
"I'd like to think we're frustrating, too, to play against," Brown said. "We have some similar characteristics. You look at both teams, and they have their system down pat the way we do. It's similar to what we do. We showed some good backchecking, and that's what they do. It was tough."
A tight game should have been expected. It featured two of the NHL's top goaltenders in Hasek and Phoenix's Nikolai Khabibulin, two teams that are among the top three in goals allowed and the league's top two penalty-killing units.
The Sabres played much better than they had in the previous three weeks, when they took a 4-7-2 slump into the break. They had problems generating scoring chances early, but they outplayed the Coyotes for the last half of the second period, most of the third and overtime.
"We had some great scoring chances," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "We didn't have a lot, but we didn't expect a lot. For the most part, we were the better team."
Geoff Sanderson, who has just two goals since Nov. 7, had the best opportunity to give the Sabres a victory when he took a pass from Matthew Barnaby and broke free on Khabibulin in the second minute of overtime. Khabibulin took away the angle and made a good save with his pads.
"It was probably the most disappointing miss I've had," Sanderson said. "I can't remember another one. That would have taken a huge piano off my back and turned a lot of things into a positive for me."
The Sabres had several opportunities in regulation on which they missed the net or had shots blocked by the Coyotes. Dixon Ward rang one off the post in the first period and nearly scored on a rebound in the second. Rob Ray and Michael Peca nearly scored in the third.
Nothing worked until Buffalo went to the basics.
Brown got himself in good position in front of the net and deflected Jason Woolley's wrist shot between Khabibulin's legs, breaking a scoreless streak against the Phoenix goalie that lasted 110 minutes, 34 seconds.
"When you have a lead and the other team ties it up, you think you lost a point," Khabibulin said. "At the same time, Buffalo is a good team and they have the best goaltender. I guess it's not that bad."
"I thought we had more chances," Hasek said. "Nikolai played a very good game. He stole a point from us."
One thing became increasingly clear as the game continued into overtime: The Sabres had better get ready for many more games like the one they had against the Coyotes.
With the Eastern Conference tight already, the matchups will get more intense as the season goes along. It might be January, but there will be plenty of playoff hockey before the postseason begins in three months.
"Every game will be like that from here on in," Ray said. "We're playing a majority of teams that are fighting for a playoff spot. We don't play too many teams that are going to be out of it -- if any."