The sellout crowd didn't know whether to boo or cheer. They'd full-throatedly done both already, so some did the former while others did the latter.
The cheers were for the Buffalo Sabres' three-goal third period that made HSBC Arena shake with excitement. The catcalls were for the 4-0 hole the Sabres dug themselves, one from which they couldn't get out.
The Carolina Hurricanes scored four times in the second period Wednesday night, then held off a startling rally to beat the Sabres, 4-3, in front of 18,690. It was the third straight loss for the Sabres, their longest skid since dropping four in a row in November.
"We kind of get on a roll in the third period, it's just too late," Sabres winger Ales Kotalik said. "When you're down, 4-nothing, it's tough to get back in 20 minutes. It's tough."
The Sabres almost did it, though. Jason Pominville scored 2:50 into the third period, Thomas Vanek's highlight-reel goal midway through made it 4-2, and the place exploded with noise that even veteran Martin Biron couldn't believe when Jiri Novotny scored short-handed with 7:06 to play.
But despite pulling Ryan Miller for the extra attacker in the final minute, the Sabres couldn't pull off a four-goal comeback. The last time they'd come back from that many was Jan. 21, 1989, in a 6-5 win over Boston.
"We went into the third saying, 'If we could get one in the first five minutes, we can get back in this game. As a team we've won a lot of games together, and we can still get back in this one,' " Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "But when you make the types of mistakes we made, a couple careless ones, when things aren't going good, those are the plays that hurt you."
The Sabres played poorly in the opening two periods of their losses to Ottawa and Atlanta, but they matched the Hurricanes, 0-0, in the first period.
The second was a nightmare. Buffalo had the puck taken during a four-on-two rush, and Carolina turned around to create a three-on-one. With the fans already booing the Sabres' inability to get a shot off, Clarence's Kevyn Adams converted the odd-man rush with 6:43 gone.
Two minutes later, defenseman Henrik Tallinder tried to backhand the puck into the corner from the front of the net, but Cory Stillman reached out to deflect it past Miller.
Anton Babchuk scored on another odd-man rush with 2:57 left in the period. Then Justin Williams rushed past a stickless Tallinder and fought off the defenseman's hold. His first shot went off Miller's stick and into the air, so Williams batted in with a chest-high swing with 1:45 to go.
"A couple turnovers cost us in the second, and we didn't play the way we wanted to in the second," Pominville said. "To win games, you usually have to play 60 minutes. We didn't do that."
The third was all Buffalo's, though. The Sabres outshot the 'Canes, 12-5, and the comeback started with the disintegration of defenseman Toni Lydman's stick. The breakage caused his shot from the point to slowly reach the net, and Pominville tipped it past Martin Gerber.
Vanek cut around Glen Wesley in the circle, took the puck below the goal line, then put it through Gerber's legs to get the crowd murmuring. When Daniel Briere broke out on a short-handed two-on-one with Novotny and the rookie converted the cross-ice pass, people had to yell if they wanted the person next to them to hear them.
"Everybody seen in the stands, we care what happens," said Novotny, recalled earlier in the day from Rochester. "We don't want to lose, 4-0, 5-0, at home."
The Sabres return to action Friday against Ottawa.
"We realize man to man, we may have to suffer more pain before we get it straightened out," Ruff said.