The expression on Jack Eichel's face said it all. He sat in the locker room, head down and waited for the media scrum to ask how another one-goal game had slipped away.
After politely answering questions, he stared across the room while slowly taking off his skates.
In overtime, he could only watch from the Buffalo Sabres' bench as Auston Matthews' wrist shot went under the crossbar with just 2.7 seconds left, giving the Toronto Maple Leafs a 4-3 win Tuesday night at sold-out KeyBank Center. The loss was the Sabres' fourth in a row and prevented them from mounting a sixth comeback this season when trailing after two periods.
Eichel scored twice in the third to tie the score and take the lead, only to watch as the Maple Leafs roared back to send it to overtime. Buffalo, 17-8-4 with 38 points, failed to gain ground in the Atlantic Division and is now five points behind the first-place Tampa Bay Lightning.
Twenty-four hours earlier, the Sabres were in the final period of a 2-1 loss in Nashville. They played four games in six nights, including three against opponents occupying playoff positions.
"We just played two of the top five teams in the NHL on a back to back and we traveled," Eichel lamented. "I thought we played a great game tonight. Obviously they get the extra point and it’s frustrating, but give us credit. Anybody who has done it before -- has played a back to back -- knows it’s not easy. … They're sitting here waiting for us."
The Sabres didn't land in Buffalo until around 1 a.m. Tuesday morning and were back at KeyBank Center less than 10 hours later for team meetings. In addition to the overnight travel, they've played a grueling schedule since beginning a 10-game win streak on Nov. 8, including 11 games in the past 19 days.
Eleven of their last 19 games have gone to overtime. They spoke Tuesday morning of needing to redeem themselves after capturing only one point during a three-game road trip against the Lightning, Florida Panthers and Predators.
Buffalo left Tuesday night with only one point and is two behind Toronto, which improved to 20-8. However, the Sabres excelled when they had every excuse to crumble. They outshot the Maple Leafs, 41-30, including 14-7 in the first period. Rasmus Dahlin's wrist shot in overtime went off Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen's glove.
Seemingly every line generated scoring chances, though the top line accounted for the Sabres' three goals.
"I think all four lines were rolling," Sabres center Evan Rodrigues said. "On a back to back you want to keep things short and quick. I thought we did that. We competed until the very end. Obviously it’s a tough loss but at the end of the day, over the past four games we’ve played three of the top five teams, arguably. We lose three one-goal games. You have to hold your head up high."
Already without Jake McCabe and Marco Scandella, Buffalo lost Casey Nelson to an injury, which forced it to play much of the night with only five defensemen. Still, the group prevented the Maple Leafs' forwards from getting easy chances. Three of Toronto's four goals were the result of difficult bounces.
Matthews' first goal at 8:33 into the second occurred when he caught a puck in the air with his left hand, threw it on the ground behind the net and beat Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark with a backhanded wraparound. Patrick Marleau's tying goal with 5:13 left in the third was the result of an awkward bounce off the boards behind the net, causing Ullmark to lose sight of the puck. Jake Gardiner scored with 10 seconds left in the second to give Toronto a 2-1 lead entering the third.
"It’s a game of inches," Ullmark, who made 26 saves, including one to stop John Tavares on a breakaway, said. "If I just had my stick on the post the third one wouldn’t have happened and we would have come out victorious."
Toronto was 14-0 this season when leading after two periods, but Eichel scored twice -- his sixth and seventh of the season -- in under 11 minutes during the third period to give Buffalo the lead, including the go-ahead goal when he skated into the slot and beat Andersen with a wrist shot.
Sam Reinhart tied the score 14:01 into the second by deflecting Nathan Beaulieu's shot past Andersen. The Sabres traded chances with one of most talented teams in the league and fell short. Eichel was emphatic that he was disappointed with the end result, not how he and his teammates responded to what he declared a difficult situation.
"I think we haven’t played our best in those games, expect for tonight," coach Phil Housley said when asked about the Sabres' difficult games against Toronto, Tampa Bay and Nashville. "You’re playing tough teams like Tampa and Nashville. These are really good hockey teams and losing the one-goal games we’re still staying resilient, we’re still focusing on the task at hand."