Carter Hutton still was breathing heavily when reporters approached him in the Sabres’ locker room at KeyBank Center. Moments earlier, Kyle Okposo and Jeff Skinner raised concerns about their team continuing to make familiar mistakes.
The postgame reaction didn’t reflect the result, a 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning, unquestionably the Eastern Conference’s strongest team, Tuesday night in front of a national television audience. However, the Sabres are holding themselves to a higher standard than years past.
On one hand, the victory was their third in a row, improving their record to 10-6-2. On the other hand, they were outshot, 30-19, and barely escaped with their first regulation win since Nov. 3. Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov hit the post with just over a minute to play, and Hutton had to make an impeccable glove save as time expired to clinch the win.
The Sabres were able to escape with a victory while failing to play their best. Previously, players spoke of how such wins shows resiliency. This was different.
“I just think we were on our heels a little bit too much,” Okposo said. “You know, that's a good hockey team over there. I thought we just gave them a little bit too much room to operate. We just weren't as sharp. We've got to clean up some stuff. I know we've won the last three games. but we probably only played real good for about a period and a half.”
The Sabres needed a remarkable comeback to bury the Canucks in a shootout only three days earlier, and they needed six goals to beat the Canadiens in Montreal last Thursday. So, coach Phil Housley emphasized the need to play 60 minutes against a team like the Lightning.
He didn’t receive that Tuesday. The Sabres were sloppy from the start and seemed overmatched against Tampa Bay’s speed. Suddenly, their fortunes reversed and they were the aggressor. Lightning backup goalie Louis Domingue robbed Casey Mittelstadt of a point-blank opportunity early, stopped Sam Reinhart’s wrister from the slot and added an outstanding pad save to stop Skinner on the doorstep.
Finally, the Sabres broke through at 17:45 when Skinner poked a loose puck through Domingue’s legs for his 13th goal of the season, and they made it a two-goal advantage at 5:43 into the second when Okposo’s toe-drag and wrister beat Domingue.
The Lightning answered only 15 seconds later with Anthony Cirelli’s breakaway goal, sending the Sabres into a tailspin. Tampa Bay outshot Buffalo, 14-2, in the second period, including 9-1 following Cirelli’s goal.
"We had opportunities to get pucks in deep, and we needed to get our D off the ice," Housley said. "We didn't manage that part of our game, and they came right back at us. They sort of smelled blood there, but we held it together. ... It was great that our guys found a way to win."
They didn’t generate many chances in the third period, either, and only had eight shots after the first 20 minutes of the game. Tampa Bay remained the aggressor, but Hutton came through again.
There were incremental signs of progress. The penalty kill allowed only two weak shots on Tampa Bay's one opportunity, and the Sabres showed they have the skill to compete with the league's best.
Buffalo's defensemen failed to find forwards in open space, often forcing pucks into the neutral zone that led to turnovers. Their two goals came when they followed Housley's directive to shoot more.
In the end, Hutton was able to steal two points for them, but all involved left Tuesday night aware that improvements must be made before their three-game road trip to Winnipeg, Minnesota and Pittsburgh.
"I think the margin for error's so small that some nights you're going to have to sort of grind one out maybe you don't deserve to win," Skinner said. "But I think for us, Hutts played a pretty big game for us and he got us a win."