CHICAGO -- You can question strategy and execution all you want when you're talking about a last-place hockey team, but you can't say the Buffalo Sabres don't care. The scene around the United Center locker room late Friday night after an absolute crusher of an overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks told quite a tale.
The Hawks won it, 3-2, as defenseman Gustav Forsling's screened shot from the point eluded Robin Lehner with just 4.9 seconds left in the extra session.
But in a game that saw them get outshot, 51-28, the Sabres blew two major chances to win: Jack Eichel was stopped by Corey Crawford on a penalty shot with 3:29 left in OT and, worse yet, Buffalo gave up Tommy Wingels' short-handed goal with 3:22 to go in regulation when a power-play goal would have almost certainly wrapped up a stunning victory to snap an 11-game losing streak against Chicago.
(And doubly worse yet, replays showed the Sabres had six guys on the ice for the Wingels goal -- and still couldn't gain control of the puck in their zone on a man-advantage situation.)
On the one hand, the Sabres were so dominated that it was fortunate they got one point. The Blackhawks had 95 shot attempts in the game -- 95! -- while Buffalo had just 41. And the Hawks nearly won it in regulation as Patrick Sharp hit the post on a backhand while staring at an open net with 20 seconds left.
But on a night when many of his teammates weren't nearly at his level of play, Eichel still took the heat for this one. While almost all of them had left the room, Eichel was still dressed in full equipment -- minus only his helmet and gloves -- as he met reporters.
"We sit back when we have leads and I thought that we did it today too," Eichel said. "We're all guilty of it. We didn't go after them. We were happy just getting the puck out of the zone instead of trying to make it hard on them. We would get it out, change and they would come at us full speed.
"You saw the game. You saw what happened. It's frustrating. we've been in this situation before and given up the lead. This is a game we needed to get two points in and we didn't. We need to be better than that."
Eichel's anger was bubbling and he wasn't finished.
"Then I've got a chance to win the game in overtime and I don't do it," he said. "I need to score that goal. This sucks. It feels like [bleep]."
The overtime was crazy, with the teams' combined 14 shots on goal (eight by the Blackhawks) setting a franchise record for the Sabres.
Eichel had gone through a 91-second shift and found another gear to get around Forsling and draw the penalty shot. Sabres coach Phil Housley recognized that and called a timeout but Eichel was still trying to catch his breath as he was heading in on goal for his first career penalty shot.
"That's why we took the timeout to give him a rest because he was pretty gassed," Housley said. "He found enough gas to make that play but he was at the end of his wick."
"The ice isn't too good here so I came in wanting to shoot it," Eichel said. "I was hearing different things about what type of goalie he is, what he gives up. I thought I saw his legs open, probably second-guess myself a little bit. It's frustrating. It's more than frustrating."
Hearing the pain in Eichel's voice, Lehner told the media he needed a moment before he spoke. He went across the room to Eichel and tapped him on the knee. Eichel spoke briefly to Lehner about how he had stolen the game and the team couldn't win it for him.
"He played great. He was the best player on the ice for both teams, for us and them," Eichel said of Lehner. "We've got to be better for him. We've got to find a way to get two points in this game. He kept us in it."
Lehner seemed stunned at the turn of events on the winning goal. Rasmus Ristolainen, who had five blocked shots while grinding out 31:44 of ice time, tried to get in the way of Forsling's 60-footer that was not full of velocity. All he did was prevent Lehner from having any chance to see the puck.
It went in the net, Lehner buried his head in his hands and thrust his arms up briefly in frustration before bolting off the ice.
"I tried to look around and see the puck," Lehner said. "Before I got a look at it, I just hear that it's in the net. That was a tough one."
"It's just one of those reactionary things," Housley said. "'Risto' could have maybe gotten out of the way. It's one of those things. It's a seeing eye dog that gets through a pad. It's unfortunate."
Lehner has stopped 83 of 88 shots the last two games. There's not much more than can be asked of him.
"I felt good today. I've been feeling good lately," Lehner said. "It's tough when we're not getting wins. I work hard in practice to try to improve my game and I think everyone is. That's what matters."
"Oh my God. It's been that way a little bit too much," said Jason Pominville, who broke the Sabres' 0-for-30 power play slump with a first-period goal off an Eichel feed. "He's played really well for us. Tonight was a great example of it. He battled, made some great saves and kept us in it."
The short-handed goal was what sat poorly on Pominville. Nick Schmaltz dominated the Sabres at puck possession and Zach Bogosian didn't cover Wingels down the slot as the Hawks winger perfectly tipped home a Forsling pass.
"It's not winning hockey," Pominville said. "You get a 'PP' with a little over four minutes left, you want to make sure you're able to kill the clock and move it around. Even if you don't get much, you don't give up anything. We gave up a goal and we see the result. We just have to make sure those kind of things don't happen."