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Mike Harrington: With Hutton leading the way, Sabres making the division listen

It took the Buffalo Sabres 38 games to get their 10th win last season.

It was four days after Christmas and three days before the Winter Classic when they won in overtime in New Jersey. Their record was 10-20-8. The season was already over.

They're at 10 wins already this year in only 18 games. At 10-6-2, this is no small sample size. They're in the playoff race. Probably for good.

Tuesday's 2-1 nailbiter over Tampa Bay was the kind of win the Sabres have almost never pulled out the last five years. Carter Hutton is making a habit of stealing games for his club, and good teams get clutch goaltending all the time. Some win games they might not deserve, solely because of work in the net.

Hutton stopped 29 of 30 shots and was in the Lightning's heads as the clock wound down. The puck seemingly never left the Buffalo zone in the final two minutes but Tampa Bay never got the equalizer.

"It was mayhem," Hutton said. "Those guys can shoot it so I just battled. I've displayed that, talk about that all the time. Just try to compete, never quit until the buzzer goes. We did a good job and I think guys were battling hard."

Now, let's get the reality checks going here. The Sabres have won three straight and all could have gone the other way.

They entered the third period trailing Thursday in Montreal, got a save on a breakaway by Hutton in relief 15 seconds into that period and won the game in overtime. They scored two goals in final 2 1/2 minutes Saturday against Vancouver to forge a tie and won in a shootout.

And they survived what seemed like a 35-minute penalty kill Tuesday night to frustrate the Lightning, as star Nikita Kucherov pounded his stick into the glass after the final horn in the wake of hitting two posts in the last minute.

Sabres know they need cleaner performance despite big win

In the last two periods, the Sabres were outshot, 22-8. Things were even worse when you look at attempts, which had the Lightning in front, 65-36 overall and 49-15 over the final 40 minutes.

But a win is a win. The Sabres are figuring out how to get a few. And they'll need every one because the Atlantic Division looks like an utter maelstrom this year.

The Lightning are definitely the class of the division and still lead the Eastern Conference -- although the Sabres are now just three points behind them. Toronto and Boston are in the 2-3 spots in the Atlantic, where it would seem they belong. Then comes everybody else and, for once, the Sabres are in the thick of it and not looking up from the bottom.

The interesting story developing is in Detroit, where the Red Wings buried Arizona, 6-1, to get their record to 8-8-2 -- after starting the season 1-7-2 and leaving us wondering how much longer it was going to be before Dan Bylsma took over behind the bench for Jeff Blashill.

Florida finished last year on fire and started this year ice cold at 2-5-3. But the Panthers' 2-1 win at Philadelphia suddenly gave them an NHL-high five straight wins.

Montreal is much better than most people thought it would be coming into the season but fell behind the Sabres after absorbing a 6-2 beating late Tuesday night in Edmonton. Ottawa isn't all that bad either, although the Senators seem to have the biggest talent gap and have dropped to the bottom like most people figure they should.

The Sabres are living off the work of Jeff Skinner up front and Hutton in the back.

The Sign Skinner Train continues to pick up speed, and for obvious reasons. His first-period goal Tuesday made it 13 goals and 20 points in the last 14 games for Skinner, who didn't have a point in his first four games with the Sabres.

Skinner's 13 goals are second in the league to the 16 of Boston's David Pastrnak and you can just about hear the ka-ching of the cash registers every time he puts another puck in the net.

The fans love when Skinner rushes up the ice. Same for Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin. You'd like to see more fannies in seats but years of moribund hockey still has the skepticism meter awfully high and the paid attendance was under 16,000 for the third time this season.

Those who are coming are loud. They were roaring through the final two minutes and on their feet for the final 30 seconds. They will get more believers to join them in due time if this keeps up.

Come Friday night in Winnipeg, the Sabres get their second chance of the season to ring up a four-game winning streak -- something they haven't done since 2014. They're legit.

"Some nights you're going to have to grind one out you don't deserve to win," Skinner said. "You need a goalie to steal you one and he did that tonight for us."

The Wraparound: Sabres 2, Lightning 1

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