When the celebration inside KeyBank Center was finally over and the Buffalo Sabres left the ice for their locker room, they were finally able to digest all that transpired during an emotional 60 minutes in front of the first sellout crowd since opening night.
After back-to-back third-period comebacks on the road, the Sabres scored four goals in the first period Wednesday against the Philadelphia Flyers, only to allow two unanswered during an ugly second. Tensions ran high between the two teams, beginning with Johan Larsson scoring a goal and knocking down Scott Laughton during a fight over a three-second span late in the first.
Carter Hutton had to bail out Buffalo again and careless passes could have turned that storybook start into a nightmarish ending. However, the Sabres accomplished what no team in franchise history has in over a decade. Sam Reinhart's empty-net goal with 1:38 remaining clinched a 5-2 win over the Flyers and the team's first seven-game winning streak since 2006-07.
The Sabres, 14-6-2 with 30 points, have lost only twice in regulation this month and rejuvenated a dejected fan base by sweeping a three-game road trip. They've also proven capable of playing with the NHL's best, no matter how daunting the odds or how poor of a start.
But for all the feel-good vibes both in and outside the locker room, the Sabres' don't want to settle for a winning streak or one promising month.
"I think it’s a testament to the guys putting in the work every day, coming here and and just trying to get better," Jack Eichel said of the winning streak. "I think that’s what we’ve done. With that being said, it’s November. It’s Thanksgiving tomorrow. There’s so much of our season left. We want to keep doing it. Your objective is to win every game. We’ll enjoy this one today, obviously enjoy our holiday tomorrow and we have a really good team coming in on Friday."
Jeff Skinner, Tage Thompson, Evan Rodrigues and Larsson scored the first-period goals. Hutton made 23 saves, including several key stops during a tenacious rally by the Flyers (9-10-2). The Sabres killed their only penalty, making them 19-for-20 on the penalty kill over their last nine games.
Rodrigues' goal on a rebound at 8:55 into the first quelled a power-play drought of 3-for-26 over the previous 10 games. There were definitive signs of improvement after three road wins in Winnipeg, Minnesota and Pittsburgh. None more important than that fast start.
Phil Housley wrote the importance of that on a white board prior to puck drop. Despite the Flyers' early-season struggles, they're still talented in spots, led by three-time Hart Trophy finalist Claude Giroux.
The Sabres greeted the fans with those three goals in a span of 5:17, beginning with Skinner's 15th of the season on a rebound off a Jason Pominville shot. Thompson dangled around a defender to poke a puck past goalie Alex Lyons' left pad only 1:42 later, and Rodrigues scored his first of the season by capitalizing on another rebound for the power-play goal.
"We were really focused and on our toes," Housley said of the first. "We really attacked the game in the first period. We shot pucks off the rush, we got pucks to the net. The power play scored a big goal. It was the start that we were looking for, especially coming back home into a big crowd. The fans were great."
Larsson's goal and fight win seemed to be a definitive knockout punch. After all, the Sabres' skill took over in the first period. Though they only held a 12-7 shot advantage through 20 minutes, their forwards consistently beat the Flyers' defensemen and won seemingly every battle for a loose puck.
It almost looked too easy. The Flyers proved otherwise in the second period. Buffalo's defensemen stopped executing breakout passes in the neutral zone. Even one of the team's more consistent players, Skinner, committed a bad turnover in his own zone.
The Sabres were trying to do too much, and Philadelphia took advantage. Giroux's wrist shot from the right circle beat Hutton at 5:26 into the second period, and the Flyers trimmed the deficit to two when Wayne Simmonds, a forward with 24 or more goals in six of the past seven seasons, beat Hutton with a shot off a rebound.
The Sabres were outshot, 18-9, for the final 40 minutes. Yet, Hutton made saves when he needed to — none bigger than his stop on Travis Konecny's backhander with 6:49 remaining, and the defense clamped down. The team will return to the same sheet of ice Thanksgiving morning for a practice in preparation for Friday's game against the Montreal Canadiens.
They'll savor what was one of the more memorable nights here in recent memory, but they'll also reflect on how to make sure there are many more to come.
"I don’t think this room has any plan of stopping," Rodrigues said. "We’re going to do whatever we can to keep this rolling. It’s a good feeling.”