The Sabres and their sellout crowd were dead quiet and going through the motions as the clocked ticked toward what seemed like an inevitable loss. Buffalo had no momentum, no jump and 3-0 third-period deficit.
When the Sabres tied the game with 8:09 left Saturday, the fans went nuts. When overtime ended with the game still tied, the First Niagara Center crowd of 19,070 delivered a lengthy standing ovation.
The Sabres earned one more when Jhonas Enroth stoned John Tavares in the shootout to secure an improbable 4-3 victory.
“It was a really fun game to play in,” Sabres center Brian Flynn said. “You just get a little momentum and it can really take you a long way.”
Buffalo ended its four-game winless streak by erasing a three-goal, third-period deficit for only the second time in franchise history. The other late rally came against Atlanta on April 2, 2003, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
The Sabres entered the night 0-16-0 this season when trailing after 40 minutes.
“We said going into the third period, you just never know,” coach Ted Nolan said. “Throw some pucks on net, and if you luck out on that first one, maybe they tighten up a bit and you get that second one.
“For us to say it was going to happen was a different story.”
Even the most ardent diehard would have been hard-pressed to see this one coming.
The Sabres started their rally with 13:21 to go when Nicolas Deslauriers scored from the slot. It was the first goal in two nights allowed by Islanders goaltender Kevin Poulin, who had a shutout for New York’s minor-league club Friday and was making his season debut.
“We just needed that first goal to get a fresh start,” center Zemgus Girgensons said. “D-lo got it, and it got us back on our feet.”
The Sabres’ second goal flustered Poulin and his teammates. Deslauriers set up Girgensons for a partial breakaway, and the darling of the All-Star voting put a stoppable short-handed shot past Poulin with 9:59 remaining. It gave a shot of adrenaline to the Sabres and their fourth sellout crowd of the year.
“Two quick goals like that, you know a goalie gets shaky,” Deslauriers said. “We just needed to keep going.”
New York called a timeout after the goal, but it failed to change anything. After Drew Stafford stepped out of the penalty box, he set up Chris Stewart for a drive along the goal line. When Stewart crossed in front and put a shot through Poulin’s pads, the crowd erupted to celebrate the 3-3 tie.
“They were fired up, and it was great to see,” said Stewart, who extended his points streak to four games. “As soon as we got that short-handed goal, you could really feel the energy in the building. They gave us a boost.”
Tyler Ennis scored the lone goal in the shootout. Tavares, who scored twice in the second period, had a chance to extend it but was stymied by Jhonas Enroth. The Buffalo goaltender improved to 5-0 in the breakaway challenge and has stopped 20 of 21 shots.
Enroth stopped 33 of 36 shots during the game. Poulin faced 26 shots, including only six during the three-goal third period.
“They scored the first one, and you could feel they regained life,” Poulin said. “We should have closed the door.”
The Sabres got healthier before the game with the return of Matt Moulson, Mike Weber and Cody McCormick, but they still had five regulars out. Brian Gionta (upper body), Tyler Myers, Torrey Mitchell, Tyson Strachan (all lower body) and Marcus Foligno (hand) were absent.
“Marcus Foligno had surgery a couple days ago, so he’ll be out for at least a month or two,” Nolan said. “Tyler Myers is kind of like that week-to-week. Gionta’s still going to be out for a little bit.”
Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen departed with flu-like symptoms after playing the opening shift of the second period. The Sabres overcame his absence and their uninspired play through 40 minutes.
“After the second, we put the working boots on and it went well,” Deslauriers said.
The Sabres’ next game is Monday night in Ottawa. They host Tampa Bay at 6 p.m. New Year’s Eve for Tux and Pucks Night. Fans who have a ticket can rent a tuxedo at Tuxedo Junction for $20.15. The team is also offering a package of two 300 Level tickets and one tux rental for $149.95.
The Sabres showed Saturday night that anyone attending their games should stick around until the end.
“We were very appreciative of the standing ovation at the end of the game,” Nolan said. “I think they’re the greatest fans in the league, and they just want a hockey game every time they come to the arena. We gave them a good one.”