The Buffalo Sabres stood together near center ice and raised their sticks high to salute the sold-out KeyBank Center crowd of 19,070 that witnessed history Tuesday night.
They roared in unison beginning at puck drop, cheered hysterically at the sight of defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen's highlight-reel goal, chanted "We want 10" with a two-goal lead in hand and gasped at each close call during the 3-on-3 overtime.
They were repaid with a win unlike any the fan base has seen in more than a decade when Jeff Skinner collected a loose puck and his backhanded shot went into the open net 1:41 into overtime to deliver a 3-2 win over the San Jose Sharks and the third 10-game winning streak in franchise history.
The Sabres, 17-6-2 and first in the NHL again with 36 points, have not lost since Nov. 4 against the New York Rangers and one more win would give Buffalo its first 11-game winning streak in franchise history. The significance of the milestone isn't lost on players who raised their sticks following the overtime winner. They're savoring it after playing in front of plenty of empty seats in the past.
They're not willing to settle for a few memorable nights.
"It feels great, but the main goal is the playoffs," Ristolainen said. "That's what I want."
The postgame comments were in stark contrast to the words spoken during locker cleanout last April. That's when the Sabres spoke of needing to change the culture on and off the ice. Fans were disappointed after another last-place finish.
The offseason brought hope in the form of the top draft pick, defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, and the acquisition of Skinner. The Sabres arrived at training camp hopeful change was on the horizon. They lost the season opener, 4-0, to the Boston Bruins and had three wins in seven games after a 5-1 loss to the Sharks on Oct. 18.
Buffalo's lost only twice in regulation since. The locker room is no longer quiet following games. It's buzzing with players expressing gratitude for fans returning to offer support and laughter. Win No. 10 was no different, even though it nearly slipped away.
Sharks center Joe Pavelski scored twice in 5:13 during the third period to erase a two-goal deficit, the second of which came 40 seconds into a power play. Pavelski scored on a wraparound after collecting a pass from Logan Couture behind the net.
"We’re just trying to keep improving," Skinner said. "Each night we’ve had guys step up and make big plays at key moments. There are still things we want to work on in our game. We have to continue to do that in this league. Teams are too good."
Buffalo nearly won the game in the final minute when center Johan Larsson hit the post, however Sharks goalie Martin Jones helped keep the score tied. The Sabres were 11-0-2 when scoring first, 10-0-2 when leading after the first period and 6-2-4 in one-goal games.
They'd made five third-period comebacks, matching the total from all of last season. Again, they insisted victory wasn't in doubt.
"These 10 games, when it’s a tight game we feel confident," Ristolainen said. "If we’re down we don’t panic. We believe. We have the belief now."
That confidence was powerfully illustrated 14:42 into the second period, when Ristolainen, a 6-foot-4 defenseman, rushed up the left wing to square off against Sharks defenseman Brent Burns, a former Norris Trophy winner. Ristolainen passed the puck between his legs, skated around Burns and shot the puck over Jones' shoulder for a 1-0 lead.
Ristolainen celebrated by twirling the blade of his stick and acting as if he was holstering it on his hip, a move that sparked quite the reaction on social media and was labeled "embarrassing" by Nathan Beaulieu.
"There’s not much to talk about," Ristolainen said. "I don’t score too often, so I really don’t plan my celebrations."
Beaulieu didn't plan his, either. That raw emotion poured out when he one-timed a backdoor pass from Sam Reinhart into the net 4:14 into the third period. The crowd's chants began and didn't stop until Pavelski's two unanswered goals.
While the Sabres fed off the noise of the crowd, it was their goalie who kept them calm. Carter Hutton earned his eighth consecutive win by stopping 36 of 38 shots, including a glove save on Barclay Goodrow with 2:29 left in the first period. His teammates took over in overtime.
After Buffalo controlled play for the first 90 seconds, Dahlin beat San Jose defenseman Erik Karlsson to a loose puck, spun around Karlsson and poked the puck toward Jones. The goalie skated toward the slot to try to poke check the puck, only to have Skinner beat him there and backhand it into the net for the game-winner.
It was Skinner's 19th goal of the season, and he's on pace to score 62. The crowd erupted, and the Sabres' bench emptied.
"I think it says a lot about our group," Beaulieu said. "A special group in here. Guys want to win. Guys are competing every night 60 minutes. I think that was the biggest thing."