DETROIT – Jack Eichel was the first to greet Sam Reinhart at center ice after the goal that helped the Buffalo Sabres defy the odds. History wasn't on their side. Neither was the NHL schedule. This was their sixth game in nine nights, four of which were on the road.
Yet, Reinhart's backhanded shot over Jimmy Howard's shoulder in the seventh shootout round extended their winning streak to nine, sealing a 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday night at Little Caesars Arena. That continued the franchise's longest winning streak since 2006-07 and this is also the first time since 2012 its earned points in nine straight games.
The Sabres, 16-6-2, left the arena shortly after the celebration and boarded the team charter for Buffalo, where they'll wake up Sunday morning with the most points in the NHL. The team that finished in the league's basement one year ago is now on top.
"Honestly, I don’t want to sound arrogant or anything, but it’s expected right now," defenseman Jake McCabe said. "That’s kind of the way things have been going for us."
The streak now includes wins over the Montreal Canadiens, Tampa Bay Lightning, Winnipeg Jets, Minnesota Wild and the Pittsburgh Penguins. That grueling schedule led Phil Housley to shuffle his lineup Saturday, and Buffalo's fourth back-to-back of the season seemed likely to put a stop to the streak. But Tage Thompson extended the shootout with his goal in the fifth round, Linus Ullmark made a save in six of seven rounds; and Reinhart redeemed his teammates, Eichel included.
Through all their mistakes – and their were many against the Red Wings – the Sabres insisted there was little doubt this would end with a win. Ullmark, starting in place of Carter Hutton, had to stop two breakaways, including one by Dylan Larkin six minutes into the third period when Eichel committed a turnover near the blue line, and made 35 saves through overtime.
Andreas Athanasiou scored the Red Wings' lone shootout goal. Buffalo, now 9-0-2 in one-goal games and 11-0-2 when scoring first, blew the lead in the second period when Larkin fired a wrist shot from the left-wing board over Ullmark's blocker to tie the score only 53 seconds in.
Thompson delivered redemption 7:40 into the third period, with a one-timer on a slap shot under the crossbar off a pass from Rasmus Dahlin. That goal came moments after Ullmark's stop on Larkin.
Then, moments after the Sabres killed off McCabe's penalty, Detroit tied the score when a deflected shot went past Ullmark and Anthony Mantha poked it over the goal line with only 6:08 remaining in regulation.
"If somebody makes a mistake someone is bailing them out," Eichel said. "Tonight it was our goalie a few times. Their guy’s making big plays. If somebody makes a mistake no one’s getting on them. I think we stick together as a group and I think that says a lot about the guys in the room."
Jeff Skinner scored on a rebound 3:37 into the first period for his 18th of the season, capitalizing after Howard failed to secure the puck from Eichel's shot. Despite the early lead, the Sabres again struggled to execute passes in the neutral zone. The Red Wings had the speed to make them pay. Such mistakes led to a pair of odd-man rushes in the first period, one of which was broken up by Rasmus Ristolainen.
Buffalo outshot Detroit, 17-13, in the first period, but the same mistakes that nearly ended the streak days earlier was again putting it in jeopardy. The Sabres' defensemen were tentative at the blue line, which led to turnovers in the offensive zone. Even their skilled forwards, Eichel included, either waited too long to pass or misfired shots when there was an opening.
"I have to give credit to our guys, that’s everybody who’s played in this six games in nine nights," Housley said. "It has been a grind. The guys continue to find energy and ways to win hockey games."
Detroit could not score on any of its four power plays, and Buffalo has now killed 24 of its last 26 penalties. The Sabres also scored twice on the power play and have scored at least once with the man advantage in three straight games. Their poor passing allowed the Red Wings to finish with a 37-35 advantage in shots, and Buffalo failed to score on its lone power play in overtime.
When Athanasiou scored in the shootout, Thompson answered by fooling Howard with a deke to create an open net and scored to extend the game. After Ullmark repaid Thompson with his save on Michael Rasmussen, Reinhart became the latest to author a chapter in a winning streak unlike any their dejected fan base has seen in more than a decade.
"The biggest thing is a lot of us have been through tough times in this room," McCabe said. "Now we’re finding some success and we’re just rolling with it. We’re having a blast doing it. "