Once again, the Buffalo Sabres took one of the oldest cliches in hockey -- it takes a 60-minute effort to win -- and turned it into a fairy tale.
The Sabres' performance in regulation Wednesday amounted to approximately three minutes. Shockingly, it was enough.
Down, 2-0, with the clock heading toward zero and half the HSBC Arena crowd on its way home, the Sabres decided to show up. They scored twice in the final 1:58 of regulation, erasing the Montreal Canadiens' lead. With the faithful finally awakened from their slumber, the Sabres completed the rally to earn a 3-2 shootout victory.
It was the Sabres' fourth straight win, but it was nothing like the first three, which came in rather convincing fashion.
"I don't think we're going to lie about it," said shootout-clincher Thomas Vanek. "We all know we can be better and we will be better, but we'll take the two points."
The fans, who'd been waiting since March 12 to see their team, probably wanted the Sabres to leave again. The offense, fast-start ability, good decision-making and various other traits that made them look so good on a five-game road trip were gone, and so were a lot of the fans.
But the Sabres got the lifeline they needed with 3:33 to play. Andrei Markov took an interference penalty, goaltender Ryan Miller went to the bench and Tim Connolly scored on the six-on-four.
It was 2-1, and the remnants of the 18,690 made their first positive sounds of the night.
"We needed something to go well, and we gained a little confidence instantly," Miller said. "If you get one, something can happen."
Steve Montador happened. The defenseman ended up at the top of the crease with 47.9 seconds to go and flipped a rebound past goalie Carey Price. Miller again was watching from the bench.
"We got one goal, the crowd really got into it, the momentum started to completely shift, and the building got louder and louder," right wing Jason Pominville said. "We got the second one, and it just erupted."
With the Canadiens stunned and the Sabres surging, the result seemed a formality.
"When the tide turns like that, you have a good feeling," Montador said.
The Sabres pushed the Canadiens 10 points back in the Northeast Division when Pominville and Vanek scored in the shootout and Miller was impenetrable. Between the teams is Ottawa, which is seven points behind the Sabres and visits the arena Friday.
Buffalo will need to start better against the Senators. Fresh off their successful road trip, the Sabres skated out of the dressing room and right into a 1-0 hole. The Canadiens' Andrei Kostitsyn needed just 41 seconds to take advantage of a bewildering shift by Vanek, Derek Roy, Tim Kennedy, Tyler Myers and Henrik Talllinder.
Kostitsyn scored again early in the second on the power play, and the Sabres generated little until their last-gasp comeback.
"It's tough giving up a goal on the first shift because it instantly puts them into a mode where they can hang back and play a little chess," Miller said. "You have to be smart. It can be frustrating to play against that kind of style. We hung in there, though, and we found a way to get something around the net late in the game."
The loss was a huge dent in an otherwise fine month for the Habs. They entered the night 7-2-1 in March and were just 118 seconds away from moving within seven points of the Sabres. Instead, they are left to worry if that one point could cost them a playoff spot.
The win moved the Sabres closer to clinching theirs.
"It is tough to win," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "You've got to be able to come back when you're down a goal. You've got to be able to lock it down when you're up a goal. You've got to fight through tough stretches in games where you're not playing well. I thought we were able to survive."
>Sabres 3, Canadiens 2 (SO)
Slapshots: Sabres' Pominville, Vanek score in shootout, completing improbable rally to extend winning streak to four. ... Sabres erase 2-0 deficit with goals by Connolly, Montador in final 1:58. ... Habs' Kostitsyn scores first two goals, including opener just 41 seconds in.
Fast fact: The Sabres are 4-6 in shootouts this season.
Next: Ottawa Senators, 7:30 p.m. Friday in HSBC Arena.