The final 20 minutes of regulation Saturday night illustrated the problems that have plagued the Buffalo Sabres since the end of their 10-game winning streak. They could not generate scoring chances because they were fending off another furious third-period rally.
The Sabres wasted energy by taking three third-period penalties and needed backup goalie Linus Ullmark to bail them out.
Despite the turbulence, Jeff Skinner scored his 26th goal of the season and Ullmark made 15 saves in the final 20 minutes to secure a 3-0 victory over the Anaheim Ducks in KeyBank Center.
The only secondary scoring help came when Conor Sheary scored an empty-net goal with 1:58 remaining; however, the victory ensured the Sabres will spend the holiday as the third-place team in the Atlantic Division, That is no small feat, considering they are five wins shy from surpassing their total from last season and they outlasted the Ducks one night after losing to the defending Stanley Cup champions on the road.
"It’s always good to go into the break with a win," Sheary said. "You don’t want to have that bitter taste in your mouth and have to wait a long time to play again. I think tonight was a total team effort. Linus stood on his head in the third and kept us with the lead. This one definitely feels good for us."
The Sabres, now 21-11-5 with 47 points, were outshot 15-3 in the third period because of three minor penalties, one of which was for too many men on the ice. They spent most of the first six minutes of the third shorthanded and needed seven blocked shots to survive. Scoring chances were 11-4 in favor of Anaheim during the third period.
Buffalo's players looked tired.
They suffered an emotional 2-1 loss to Washington one night earlier, having little time to rest before hosting a physical Western Conference opponent. It showed in the third period, when defensemen had trouble with breakout passes and the Sabres' forwards could not sustain a forecheck. Ullmark, who improved to 8-1-3, made 40 saves for the shutout.
But that did little to spoil the first 40 minutes, according to coach Phil Housley. Buffalo pressured Ducks goalie John Gibson with 30 shots through two periods. After failing to contribute much to the Sabres' 5-on-5 attack since the winning streak ended, their defensemen joined the rush and made crisp passes through the neutral zone.
Rasmus Dahlin's power-play goal 16:51 into the first period — his first goal on home ice — broke a scoreless tie and was Buffalo's third goal by a defenseman in 12 games. Though Gibson made 15 saves in a scoreless second period, the Sabres generated chances with all four lines.
The fourth line of Tage Thompson, Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgenson combined for eight shots on goal in the game. Casey Mittelstadt rebounded nicely after a difficult game in Washington. And Sheary, scoreless in his previous 16 games, continued to use his speed to create chances.
"I really liked our first two periods," Housley said. "I liked our start. A tough schedule. We had plane trouble the night before. Got in really late and a quick turnaround for our guys. They found a way to gain some energy. Especially at the start, I really liked our shot mentality. Everything was going to the net."
It's no secret the Sabres are at their best when all four forward lines and defensemen are contributing during 5-on-5 play. Seventeen players scored during the 10-game win streak, and Buffalo received eight goals from defensemen during that span.
The Sabres' penalty kill, impenetrable during the winning streak and buoyed the past two games by the return of defenseman Jake McCabe, has now allowed only one goal in its last 26 opportunities.
The Ducks, 19-14-5 with 43 points and ranked third in the NHL with 12 comeback wins, threatened until Sam Reinhart collected a puck along the boards and passed to Skinner, who skated past Pontus Aberg before firing a high backhanded shot over Gibson's glove to make it 2-0 with 8:48 remaining in regulation.
"This was a big win for us," said Dahlin, who has 20 points in 37 games.
Housley has some problems to correct before the Sabres' game Thursday in St. Louis. After all, Kyle Okposo has one goal in his last 23 games, and Vladimir Sobotka has not scored in 21 straight games. Defensemen made some irresponsible passes against Anaheim.
The Sabres are just 4-5-3 since the win streak ended. Still, if the regular season ended today, they would be one of five Atlantic Division teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"Our division this year is strong," Sheary said. "They’re holding both the wild-card spots right now. It proves every night is that important, because you don’t want to slip out of the top three. We’re just going to worry about ourselves, keep moving forward and keep trying to get two points every night."