Jeff Skinner didn't know the puck crossed the goal line until he heard the roar of KeyBank Center's sold-out crowd Friday evening. It wasn't until Jack Eichel raised his arms in victory that Skinner joined a celebration fit for the milestone.
The rebound-power play overtime goal capped the Buffalo Sabres' sixth third-period comeback of the season, a 3-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens, and extended their unprecedented NHL-best winning streak to eight. Skinner, one of General Manager Jason Botterill's additions during an offseason overhaul, also scored the tying goal with 2:26 left in regulation.
The Sabres, 15-6-2 with 32 points, are 8-2-1 at home, on pace for their best mark since 1979-80 and are 8-0-2 in one-goal games. Carter Hutton made 31 saves, none bigger than his stop on Brendan Gallagher with 1:16 seconds left in regulation, for his seventh straight win.
Eichel was also dominant in the third period and overtime, assisting on the game-winner with one whack on Rasmus Dahlin's shot from the right circle. However, it was Skinner who powerfully illustrated how far this team has come.
"He was dog-on-a-bone mentality," coach Phil Housley gushed. "Any loose puck or retrieval, he was going to get on it and made some big saves the one time he dove to keep it in and keep possession. That’s what Jeff Skinner does. He can really track down pucks for us."
Skinner has 17 goals in 23 games, despite being held scoreless in his first four with the Sabres. In August, he was acquired by Botterill from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for prospect Cliff Pu and three draft picks, a remarkable discount for a 26-year-old old with three 30-goal seasons.
Some teams search years for a winger capable of playing with their franchise center. Botterill found one for Eichel when he convinced Skinner to come to Buffalo for the final season of his contract. Skinner's proven to be the two-way player the Sabres have missed, one who can create chaos in all three zones.
The Sabres were stagnant in all three for much of two periods Friday. They broke the scoreless tie 12:39 into the first when Conor Sheary deflected a Jake McCabe shot off the post and the puck laid idle in the crease, where Casey Mittelstadt was there to tap it into the open net.
Otherwise, the Sabres couldn't possess the puck in the Canadiens' zone and again struggled to execute passes in the neutral zone. They seemingly lost every one-on-one battle for a loose puck along the boards.
"That’s a fast team," Skinner said afterwards. "They’re really good on the rush and really good in transition. They did a good job in the neutral zone. We have to do a good job early in the game to get pucks in. Maybe play it more simple because they sort of pounce on turnovers. They’ve got some guys who can hurt you. I think in the third we did a better job getting pucks and getting to work down low in the offensive zone. It paid off late for us."
Buffalo failed to score on its first three power-play opportunities, including two in the second period. The Canadiens, now 11-8-4, tied the score 18:12 into the second when Brendan Gallagher beat Hutton with a wrist shot toward the far post. Montreal then took the lead in the third period, only five seconds after Jason Pominville was called for a holding penalty at 8:18, when Andrew Shaw deflected a shot from defenseman David Schlemko.
That woke the Sabres up. Slowly, they began to create more scoring opportunities, led by their defensemen. After failing to sustain possession, Buffalo started winning those battles in the corners. No player was more noticeable than Skinner.
His wrist shot from the left circle was stopped at 6:05 remaining, and he nearly drew a holding penalty near the half boards. When Zach Bogosian fired a slap shot from the right point, Skinner was there to shoot the rebound past Antti Niemi.
"We stuck with it," Eichel said. "Probably not our best game, but I thought just sticking with it throughout the game and then I thought we put a good amount of pressure there late in the third. We were starting to build momentum and get a late one."
With help from Hutton, the Sabres took the game into overtime, when Rasmus Ristolainen drew a penalty only 92 seconds in. During a frenzied power play, Skinner dove to keep a puck in the zone, and finally, following Dahlin's shot from the right circle, scored on a his second whack at a puck in the crease with 1:54 remaining.
Eichel and Skinner led all Sabres forwards with 24:32 and 20:45 minutes on the ice, respectively, and have combined for 51 points. Sam Reinhart was also outstanding in the final minutes after being moved to the top line, helping the Sabres outshoot the Canadiens, 40-33.
After receiving little help from the supporting cast, Eichel has it in spades, and it's the linemate to his left that's been the heartbeat of the best story in the NHL.
"I didn’t think it went in, but nice way to find out," Skinner joked. "[The fans] were into it. It was a fun game to win."