TAMPA — The mood in the Buffalo Sabres' locker room wasn't somber, even though they fell short of making history Thursday night at Amalie Arena.
With a 5-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Sabres were unable to achieve the first 11-game win streak in franchise history. They allowed two unanswered goals in the third period after regaining the lead and twice coming back to tie the game against one of the Eastern Conference's best. The result dropped them out of first place in the Atlantic Division, tied with the Toronto Maple Leafs and one point behind the Lightning.
The 60 minutes of hockey played in front of a sold-out crowd powerfully illustrated the impact of the Sabres' unprecedented run. The Lightning were desperate to put an end to the streak and again assert themselves as one of the league's best. While Buffalo played seven overtime or shootout games during its third 10-game streak in franchise history, its players still had the energy and talent to trade scoring chances with Tampa Bay.
Players expressed pride afterward. After all, in addition to captivating a long-suffering fan base, the streak showed the Sabres, 17-7-2 with 36 points, they are capable of beating anyone, no matter the circumstances.
"I think for one it shows us we can win every night we go out there," Jack Eichel, who assisted on both Sam Reinhart goals, said. "I think that should be our mindset no matter what. We're going out there to play against the best team in the league at home, whatever it may be. We should expect to win every night we go on the ice. I think that’s kind of the confidence you build through a winning streak like that."
During the win streak, the Sabres played seven overtime or shootout games and this loss was their eighth game in the past two weeks. They've already made six third-period comebacks, matching the total from all of last season, and had won five consecutive divisional games.
That grueling schedule also included six games in nine nights against some of the league's best and was taxing on the Sabres' health. They were without defenseman Marco Scandella, winger Conor Sheary and center Patrik Berglund Thursday night. A 10-minute misconduct penalty to Nathan Beaulieu and an injury to Jake McCabe forced them to play with only four defensemen for almost 10 minutes in the second period.
Yet, Buffalo was only 17 minutes away from becoming one of only 26 teams in NHL history to win 11 or more consecutive games. The league took notice, if Tuesday night was any indication.
Tampa Bay, 18-7-1, dominated the first eight minutes of the game and scored 2:59 in when defenseman Dan Girardi capitalized on a rebound in front of Carter Hutton, who lost his stick moments earlier. Buffalo responded with another remarkable comeback. Zemgus Girgensons redirected Rasmus Ristolainen's slap shot past Louis Domingue to tie the score 8:42 into the first period, and Reinhart gave the Sabres a 2-1 lead with his shot off a pass from Eichel 63 seconds later.
"We’re going to have to expect that we’re going to get every team we get, their best game," coach Phil Housley said. "This is a very, very good team. They were ready. We knew that. I think we just didn’t execute well. I give our guys credit."
Another rebound led to Tampa Bay's tying goal on an Alex Killorn shot, and the Lightning took a 3-2 lead 15:55 into the first with Nikita Kucherov's wrist shot on a 3-on-1 odd-man rush. This was playoff hockey in November. Tensions escalated in the first period when Eichel hit defenseman Ryan McDonagh from behind, leading to a two-minute boarding penalty.
The officials spoke to Eichel and Lightning captain Steven Stamkos to try to calm both sides. The emotion boiled over at the end of the first with a scuffle behind the net. While punches were thrown by both sides, defenseman Zach Bogosian was assessed a two-minute penalty for cross-checking and Beauileu was given a misconduct penalty. To make matters worse, McCabe had left with an undisclosed injury moments earlier and was on the ice for only one shift in the second period.
"That’s one of the best teams on home ice for a reason," Eichel said. "They start fast. They always seem to hit you with a lot of pressure in the first period. I thought it was good we were able to get a few back.
Despite playing with only four defensemen and having to kill Johan Larsson's double minor for high sticking, the Sabres went into the second intermission with the score tied, 3-3, and took the lead 2:29 into the third with Tage Thompson's shot from the right circle. Buffalo was 10-0-2 in one-goal games this season and the third period had often been its best.
That wasn't the case against Tampa Bay. Larsson was called for another penalty 4:05 into the third, and Stamkos tied the score seven seconds later with a one-timer power-play goal from the left circle. The Lightning then capitalized after a flurry of chances in the Sabres' zone, taking the lead with 5:41 remaining on Cedric Paquette's wrist shot from high in the slot.
Hutton made 32 saves and the Sabres were able to kill four penalties, however, they made too many mistakes against a team that will stand between them and a division title.
"We gave ourselves a chance to win, but we know we've got more and know we need to be better," Reinhart said.