When Jack Eichel was not available take the faceoff with the game on the line Thursday night, Buffalo Sabres coach Phil Housley tapped Johan Larsson on the shoulder with 1:29 remaining in regulation.
Larsson, typically the Sabres' fourth-line center, climbed over the boards and helped them escape with a 4-3 win over the Florida Panthers in KeyBank Center. A night that began with so much promise -- including two first-period goals -- ended with another near-comeback by an inferior opponent.
Still, the Sabres showed how they will need to survive without Eichel, who is expected to miss at least one more game with an upper-body injury.
Jeff Skinner scored his 27th and 28th goals of the season, while Sam Reinhart had his first goal in 12 games. Additionally, Evan Rodrigues, who was tasked with centering the top line, went 8-for-10 in the faceoff circle. Seemingly every line contributed, despite some players being asked to fill different roles.
"I think everybody has to contribute," Housley said. "This is contribution-by-committee. I thought everybody played a strong game tonight within the minutes that they got. It’s great to see Skinner get a couple. [Reinhart] had a big goal in the third period. … We’re going to need them at this point in the season. That’s the way it’s going to go."
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The Sabres, now 22-13-6 with 50 points, kept pace in the Atlantic Division and remained in fourth place with Boston's 6-4 win over Calgary. Buffalo also snapped a three-game winless streak and won for only the fifth time in 16 games.
The Sabres did it by using the same formula that produced a 10-game win streak in November. All six defensemen contributed offensively -- Lawrence Pilut's slap shot was deflected by Reinhart for a third-period goal -- and the Sabres created traffic in front of the net.
They also weren't afraid to shoot. Tage Thompson, who had a team-high five shots on goal, scored for the first time in 15 games when his wrist shot beat Roberto Luongo for a 2-0 lead 7:15 into the first period.
"I think it was just a matter of time before one went in," Thompson said.
The Sabres' penalty kill is now 34-for-37 over its past 13 games with its only hiccup Thursday coming 12:15 into the third when Panthers winger Mike Hoffman cut the deficit to one with a rebound goal against Linus Ullmark.
Most important, the Sabres' best line set the tone. Skinner scored 4:42 into the first when he collected a puck near the right-wing wall, stick-handled around Denis Malgin and his shot went over Luongo's shoulder.
Following Hoffman's goal, Skinner gave the Sabres another two-goal lead with 3:46 remaining when he knocked a puck down with his glove in the neutral zone and rushed up the ice before his wrist shot barely went through Luongo's leg pads.
Reinhart also set a new career high with his 31st assist of the season and his third-period goal was a much-needed response following a difficult second period for Buffalo.
"I thought the team played well," Skinner said. "It was a great team win. We got contributions from everyone. I think all six D played really well tonight."
Vladimir Sobotka, who centered a line that included Thompson and Conor Sheary, played 20:27 -- the first time he has played more than 20 minutes since Dec. 5, 2017 -- and Larsson was on the ice for a season-high 19:21. Both were called upon for defensive zone starts in the final moments and won a combined 21 faceoffs.
"We have some players in a different seat right now," Housley said.
The Sabres were outshot, 38-33, including 15-10 in the third period, but they overcame some tough luck. Florida winger Frank Vatrano's second-period goal occurred on a 2-on-1 odd-man rush, the result of Rasmus Dahlin being knocked down away from the puck by Keith Yandle.
Alekander Barkov's goal with 1:29 regulation to again cut Buffalo's lead to one was a remarkable play on a scramble in front of the net. Housley won't enjoy re-watching some of the defensive coverage in front of Ullmark, but it was a one goal-victory after the Sabres went 1-1-2 in their previous four games when leading after two periods.
Now, Buffalo has only one practice day to prepare for a trip to Boston, where it will face the Bruins on Saturday at 7:05 p.m. Eichel will miss that game and is considered day-to-day, according to Housley.
Though there is no replacing Eichel's talent, the Sabres found a possible formula to navigate a critical point of the season.
"It’s a lift for sure," Skinner said. "I don't think we are a fragile group. We haven’t gotten the results the past little while that we’d like, but it’s a tough league and you’re going to go through those stretches. You have to take the positives from it and build on them."