These aren't the Sabres of old. If there was any doubt inside KeyBank Center on Saturday afternoon — and surely there was after an ugly finish to the second period — it was erased with yet another spectacular comeback.
Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart scored 40 seconds apart to erase a two-goal deficit with 1:47 remaining in the third period to send the game to overtime, and Casey Mittelstadt's dazzling shootout winner helped secure a 4-3 win against the Canucks.
The Sabres, now 9-6-2, moved into third in the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division pending the results of Montreal's Saturday night game with their second consecutive non-regulation win. They were without Reinhart and center Jack Eichel for most of the first period, and had quality chances stopped by Canucks goalie Jacob Markström in the third period.
Yet, they prevailed with two penalty kills in the final six minutes, led by another impeccable performance by Carter Hutton in net. It was only the seventh time in franchise history the Sabres overcame a multi-goal deficit in the final five minutes of regulation and the first since March 24, 2010.
"You look at probably the last few years, it’s been a little bit tougher to come back in games," Eichel, who missed most of the first period and part of the second for what Phil Housley later called a lower-body injury, said afterward. "This year we’ve had some third periods where we’re down or trailing or maybe we give a goal up we’re not happy about, but I think the resiliency in this group and that never-out-of-it attitude, the ability to continue to fight, it’s been tremendous."
The Sabres had only 16 shots on goal through two periods and allowed two goals in 70 seconds near the end of the second period. They scored at 4:43 into the first when defenseman Nathan Beaulieu redirected a back-door pass from Kyle Okposo past Markström. Even after the returns of Reinhart, who was hit in the face with a puck, and Eichel, the Sabres' offense was struggling to generate chances, and their defense, including rookie Rasmus Dahlin, made familiar mistakes in its own end.
The comeback started with Hutton. The 32-year-old stopped all 15 shots he faced in the first and made a spectacular glove save in the second when lying on his back to rob Bo Horvat. The Canucks responded with three goals in 5:28 to take a 3-1 lead, including Jake Virtanen's backhand to the far post with Hutton out of position.
The Sabres, though, had another strong third period, firing 19 shots on goal in the final 20 minutes of regulation, including a failed shorthanded breakaway by center Evan Rodrigues. They weren't able to break through until Housley pulled Hutton with 3:14 remaining. First, Reinhart won a battle behind the net and made a centering pass to Skinner, whose wrist shot went over Markström's shoulder to cut the deficit to one for his league-leading 12th goal of the season.
"It depends on the vibe of the team and how they're playing," Housley said of pulling Hutton. "You might pull him a little earlier if you don't see anything, but I thought we had some momentum so I waited until the three-minute mark. Skinner's goal ignited us."
It took the Sabres only 40 seconds to tie the score, sending much of the 17,541 announced crowd into a frenzy. Dahlin made an outlet pass to find fellow defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen in the neutral zone, and the rebound from Ristolainen's shot at Markström went right to Reinhart, who shot the puck into the empty net with 1:47 remaining.
Hutton made 36 saves, including two in overtime, and stopped a pair of attempts in the shootout. The Sabres had 21 shots on goal after the second period, but they limited chances in overtime before Eichel's first-round goal and Mittelstadt's deke froze Markström for the winner in round three.
"It's big," Reinhart said afterward. "It was kind of an up-and-down game and everyone stuck with it late. The penalty kill was huge. We always felt we were in the game and that's been something we've really changed this year."
The Sabres have come back from trailing after the first period three times this season after doing so only four times all of last season. They're also tied for ninth in the NHL in goals scored after being dead last in the statistic in 2017-18, and are 14th in goals against per game.
Neither Skinner nor Eichel was at his best Saturday afternoon. Most of the Sabres weren't. Still, they showed this team is far different than the one that finished at the bottom of the league last season, knocking off what many viewed as one of the top teams in the Western Conference.
"It’s not always going to be pretty," Eichel said. "You’re not always going to play your best. You’re not always going to feel good. It’s 82 games, it’s long, it’s not easy. When you're able to find two points it’s huge. That’s what good teams do."