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Mike Harrington: Sabres' new reality is a major challenge

SUNRISE, Fla. — The streak is over and one of the Buffalo Sabres mostly responsible for the franchise's best run of hockey in more than a decade got a richly deserved night off here Friday.

But goaltender Carter Hutton was still bubbling with enthusiasm at what it all means.

"I don't think we're going to sneak up on anybody anymore and that's OK. The days of taking the Buffalo Sabres lightly have come and gone," Hutton said pointedly in BB&T Center.

There was no way for Hutton to know how prophetic those words would be. The Florida Panthers were blase during their loss here to Anaheim on Wednesday and just 1-3-1 in their last five games. But they were dynamic during Friday night's 3-2 overtime win over Buffalo, with a 43-24 advantage in shots on goal and a whopping 80-40 bulge in attempts.

Every opponent will be like that from now on. The Sabres' 10-game winning streak ended with Thursday's 5-4 loss at Tampa Bay, and Friday's game was certainly a mental and physical challenge.

There was the letdown factor of the streak being over and the fatigue factor of playing a back-to-back on the road. The Sabres weren't nearly good enough for long stretches in this one, and only the work of goaltender Linus Ullmark, who made 40 saves, got them a point.

"You guys see it. We've got ultimate confidence when either of these guys go in the net," said Jack Eichel. "He steals a point for us tonight. 'Hutts' has been so good all year and Linus the same."

The Sabres got a boost from plenty of Blue-and-Gold-clad fans in the building making a weekend out of it with the Bills playing the Miami Dolphins not far from here on Sunday. The fans are back now, with KeyBank Center sold out three straight times and turning into a howling cauldron of noise during climactic moments of games during this run.

"One thing we've really established now is that coming to KeyBank Center to play is going to be a tough place for you and we're going to give you a tough game," Hutton said. "We wanted to create that with our hockey and we wanted to create that with our fan base and now we have. Our fans were amazing in this run here."

So was Hutton. He went 8-0 during the streak, posting a 1.97 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage. He's already got 12 wins on the season, third in the NHL.

"I felt solid," Hutton said. "Even building off last year, I've felt my game has been solid. I try not to get too caught up in the run, how things were going. You start thinking too far ahead and it catches up with you. Take it minute by minute, stay focused in the moment and control the mental side."

Ullmark is 5-0-2 as the backup and has a .927 save percentage, even better than Hutton's .917. There's no issues when Hutton needs a night off.

"You see the league now. You never know when you're going to have a 7-5 game or 1-0 game," Ullmark said. "It's how it goes. You've got to be humble every time you step on the ice, every time you get the call."

Goaltending is no issue for the Sabres this year. Certainly, there are areas of concern in the wake of the streak.

Injuries are cropping up, with Jake McCabe and Marco Scandella out of the lineup Friday and Jason Pominville knocked from the game in the third period when his arm/wrist hit the boards as he was drilled from behind by Alex Petrovic.

The Sabres' shot yields have taken a dramatic spike in recent games as well. They got outshot, 80-46, the last two nights and have given up at least 37 shots on goal for four straight games.

Eichel lost Aleksander Barkov on the game-winning goal and probably deserved a better fate because he was a beast during the first 1:49 of OT, when the Sabres had the puck virtually the entire time. And he had assisted on both of Buffalo's goals too.

But the special teams battle troubled the Sabres, as they gave up two power-play goals, including Evgeni Dadonov's tying tally with 8:04 left. It came eight seconds after Casey Nelson took a careless high sticking penalty.

The Sabres will be off Saturday. They will practice Sunday. They will play Monday at Nashville (gulp). They will host Toronto on Tuesday (double gulp).

They're not sneaking up on anybody anymore. They better buckle down. Everyone in the NHL will be waiting for them.

"They know about the streak now," coach Phil Housley said of every future opponent. "They see where we are in the standings and we're going to get everybody's best game."

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