GLENDALE, Ariz. – The celebration was in full swing. The Sabres had a 5-1 lead, and they could finally enjoy their first easy victory of the season.
The problem was nine minutes still remained on the clock.
"Maybe we just thought the game was over before it was over," left wing Benoit Pouliot said. "We got a little bit lazy, and they capitalized, but we came out with the two points."
The Sabres' cake walk turned into a nail-biter as Arizona scored three goals in the final 7:49, but Buffalo held on for a 5-4 victory. Although the party was more subdued than it should have been, the Sabres partied nonetheless.
"We get the 5-1 lead, and I thought we just need to bear down and make the right decisions," coach Phil Housley said in Gila River Arena. "We got away from what made us successful, and we almost shot ourselves in the foot.
"Obviously, we'll take the win."
The Sabres will take any win any way they can. They improved to 4-7-2 heading into Saturday's game in Dallas.
"It was a big win," goaltender Robin Lehner said. "We needed this win. This is nice for us. We're going to Dallas, and we need to get a win there and slowly climb back in."
The frantic finish gave the Sabres a needed mental test. Housley talked earlier this week about the team's tendency to fall apart at key times. While the Sabres made big mistakes, they insist they didn't crumble under pressure.
"What I liked was I didn't feel like we were panicking even if they scored a couple back-to-back there," Lehner said. "We didn't panic. I didn't panic, and it's a big win."
The Coyotes' push nearly erased 30 minutes of solid hockey for Buffalo.
After Kyle Okposo scored his first goal of the season with 0.9 seconds left in the first period to make it 1-1, the Sabres rolled. They had a 12-6 shot advantage during the second, scoring twice. They connected twice more in the opening half of the third period, including a short-handed goal by Evander Kane that came on a two-on-zero break.
"The second period I thought we did a terrific job in what we talked about, playing without the puck, doing everything right," Housley said.
"We moved our feet in the offensive zone," Okposo said. "We worked. We chipped pucks in, and we were able to get them back and maintain possession. We were able to dictate the play in the offensive zone more than we have in games' past."
Then they stopped.
"We've just got to keep playing," Okposo said. "You get a 5-1 lead, you just have to play smart, keep moving your feet, keep making plays. We just got on our heels.
"You know a team is going to come, make a push. If they score a goal, you've got to still get on your toes and just keep playing the right way. We'll learn that as we go."
It seems there's something to learn every night, even though many lessons have been taught already.
"In the third we could have done a better job of shutting them down," right wing Seth Griffth said. "We knew they were going to have a push."
Luckily, the push only made the Sabres stumble. It didn't flatten them.
"A couple breakdowns and they scored a few goals," said Pouliot, who scored twice. "They hemmed us in our zone for a long time. Boys were tired. Boys were rolling around a bit, and they scored a few goals.
"But in the end, it was good. We won."