It seems the Buffalo Sabres have indeed learned from their recent mistake.
The Sabres were a bitter, disappointed group earlier this week after they coughed up a two-goal lead in the closing minutes to Nashville. They vowed to protect their advantages better, promised to play smarter when victory is in reach.
For the second straight game, they not only guarded their lead, they expanded it. The Sabres pulled away from the Florida Panthers during the third period Friday for a 4-2 victory in HSBC Arena.
The Sabres were up, 4-1, before the Panthers scored in the closing seconds. Buffalo had a 1-0 lead during the third period Tuesday in Montreal before dropping the Canadiens, 2-0.
It's a solid bounce back from the overtime loss to Nashville, which seemed like a certain victory before the Sabres' 3-1 advantage disintegrated during the final 2:30.
"The biggest thing is when we have leads to be better with leads," Sabres right wing Jason Pominville said. "We've done a better job and hopefully learned from that tough one we lost the other night."
The sellout crowd saw the Sabres move to 5-1-2 in their last eight home games, a run that puts their record in HSBC Arena at 17-16-4. It's the first time this season they've had more victories than regulation losses.
"We're aware our home record has to be better," said Pominville, who scored just 1:23 after the opening faceoff. "We've got to be a tougher team to play against at home. We went through stretches where we weren't playing too well, and lately we've been playing a little bit better."
The eighth-place Sabres extended their unbeaten streak to four games (3-0-1) and improved their record to 10-3-3 in the last 16. They pulled within two points of the seventh-place New York Rangers with one fewer game played, and they stayed three points ahead of victorious Carolina.
The Sabres have just eight games remaining, with all but one part of a back-to-back situation. Hence, they take the ice again tonight when New Jersey visits the arena. The Devils are 24-6-3 since Jan. 9 after starting the season 10-29-2.
They are just 1-3-1 in their last five games, however, to drop 10 points behind the Sabres and sit 12th in the Eastern Conference.
"If Buffalo wins, I think we're done," Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk said following Friday's 1-0 shootout loss in Pittsburgh. "Still, we've got to play for pride for our fans. Just make a push and feel better for next year."
The Sabres turned a tight game into an easy victory midway through the final period. Jordan Leopold and Drew Stafford scored 13 seconds apart, energizing the Sabres and their 18,690 fans.
"The building kind of exploded," Pominville said. "Everybody gets into it, and it's a fun building to play in when it's like that. Momentum is a big part of the game, and when you're able to get it and play well with the lead it makes a big difference."
Although Pominville quickly got the fans out of the seats into which they'd settled, the first period wasn't pretty for the Sabres. A turnover by Tyler Myers led to Sergei Samsonov's early goal. Off-the-mark passing and a couple of saves by Panthers goaltender Tomas Vokoun sent the Sabres into a dressing room in a 1-1 tie.
"I don't think we had as good a start as we wanted to," forward Cody McCormick said. "Coming in here, we regrouped. We know as a team we can play better, and we showed it later on."
Stafford's first goal of the night, which ended a six-game drought for the Sabres' top goal-scorer, came early in the second. From there, the Sabres showed their schooling and stayed in front.
"Every game is just going to be real tight," coach Lindy Ruff said. "There's going to be times in the game where you're going to have to play real sound defensively. You're going to be stuck in either a one-goal deficit or a one-goal lead, and you've got to make good plays. You've got to make smart decisions. We were able to stay with it and broke it open in the third."