TAMPA — The Streak Is Over. Long Live the Streak.
We now return you to our regularly scheduled hockey season.
The Buffalo Sabres' franchise-altering winning streak came to an end Thursday night, stopped in its tracks at 10 games as the Tampa Bay Lightning got a tiebreaking goal from Cedric Paquette with 5:41 left and held on for a 5-4 victory in Amalie Arena.
Getting to 11 games would have given the Sabres the longest run of consecutive victories in their history — and it would have been quite a bit of symmetry when you ponder the history of the franchise.
No. 11, of course, is the greatest number in Sabres history, worn proudly for the first 17 years of the franchise by Hall of Famer Gilbert Perreault.
"I thought of Perreault today coming down to the rink. I was thinking, 'Win one for Gilbert and the number here,' " fellow Sabres legend Danny Gare told The Buffalo News following the morning skate. "This is a tough opponent. Tampa Bay is an elite team, a team building for big moments. But they can be beaten."
The Sabres nearly did it for the second time this month, taking a 4-3 lead early in the third period on a Tage Thompson goal before the Lightning surged to their final push. A shame really when you think of what 11 means to the Sabres. It goes all the way back to 1970. To June 11 of that year — there's that number again — when the NHL Draft was held at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal.
The fate of the Sabres and expansion cousin Vancouver would ultimately be decided for many years by the spin of a simple roulette wheel to determine who would get the top pick. Vancouver had lower numbers and the Sabres had higher numbers.
The wheel spun, NHL President Clarence Campbell announced the number was 1 and thus declared Vancouver the winner, to cheers from the Canucks' delegation. But legendary Sabres coach and general manager Punch Imlach politely and properly pointed out the league president's mistake, that the wheel had actually stopped on 11 and the second "1" was simply hidden from view.
Campbell agreed and declared the Sabres the winner, prompting a second set of hooting from a different part of the ballroom. The Sabres drafted Perreault. He wore No. 11 his entire career and the rest, of course, is history.
Gare, who still lives in Western New York but winters in the Tampa area, was part of a Buffalo team that won nine straight to open the 1975-76 season. He remembers the feeling well.
"You got a snowballing effect," he said. "You just continue to think you're invincible almost. It's a fun time when that happens. Everybody is happy and enjoying it."
The current Sabres seem to agree.
"It shows us we can win every night we go out there," captain Jack Eichel said, head held high in the dressing room after the taut thriller. "And I think that should be our mindset, no matter what. ... We should expect to win every night we go on the ice. That's kind of the confidence you build through a winning streak like that."
"Your belief grows and everyone plays looser," agreed Sam Reinhart, whose two goals in the game were both set up by Eichel. "The biggest thing everyone has noticed is how much you start playing for the team."
This streak began with a Nov. 8 overtime win in Montreal. The three weeks since have rejuvenated the franchise and finally brought a bedraggled fan base back to the team. There are now legitimate hopes for a playoff berth for the first time since 2011.
The Sabres entered Thursday nine points inside the cut line for the postseason. There's a lot of season left, but that's a lot of cushion, too.
The Lightning are a veteran group that have been to three Eastern Conference finals the last four years and were two wins from the Stanley Cup in 2015. They were blunt prior to the game about avenging their 2-1 loss Nov. 13 in Buffalo and getting back ahead of the Sabres in the NHL's overall standings.
The Sabres better be used to such feelings. They're going to get everyone's best shot from this point forward. At least Thursday, they had plenty of answers.
It was a game that was played at a frenetic playoff pace. The Sabres were behind, 1-0 and 3-2. They led, 2-1 and 4-3, with the latter coming on Thompson's goal at 2:29 of the third period. Tampa captain Steven Stamkos tied the game on a power play less than two minutes later, setting the stage for the dramatic finish.
The sellout crowd was in uproar all night and it had the feeling of a Sabres-Toronto Maple Leafs game in the stands. Buffalo fans have piled into Florida for the weekend, with Thursday's game here followed by the Sabres' game against the Florida Panthers on Friday night in Sunrise and the Bills' game Sunday against the Dolphins in suburban Miami.
The "Let's Go, Buffalo" chants filled the 300 level of the arena, with the Tampa fans answering back with their own full-throated roars of "Let's Go, Bolts"
"It's all so amazing," Gare said. "No one expected this obviously but when a group gets together, gets good goaltending and timely goals, it happens. When you look at the team confidence-wise, they're all having fun doing it.
"It's awesome. It's great for them. I'm so happy for them. I've never seen crowds going wild like that back home in a while. Just going nuts."
Think of how bizarre this all is. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Sabres are the first team in NHL history to lead the overall standings 25 games into a season after finishing with the worst record in the previous season.
And forget about a double-digit run. Buffalo had not even won as many as four in a row since 2014 until that streak began.
But now things will be different. There will be expectations, both from the fans and from within the locker room. And the Sabres will be circled on opponents' schedules now.
The rest of the season begins Friday night in Sunrise against the Florida Panthers.
"That's just the way it is," Reinhart said. "When you go on a streak like that, teams are going to take notice and be ready for you."
The streak got so much attention but don't forget the big picture that there's still 56 games to play. Think of one of Van Miller's favorite catch phrases on the radio calls during the Bills' Super Bowl years.
Remember "Fasten your seat belts"?
It's appropriate. This has been a wild ride already. And there's so much season left.