Jack Eichel felt helpless. All the Buffalo Sabres' captain could do was watch from the penalty box as Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos glided into the offensive zone and fired a wrist shot over Linus Ullmark's blocker Saturday night in KeyBank Center.
That goal with 5:16 remaining in regulation was the eventual game-winner, and the red-hot Lightning escaped with a 5-3 victory over the Sabres. It was a tragic ending to an otherwise promising three periods for Eichel and his teammates.
They outshot Tampa Bay, 33-30, and were the better team for much of the game, despite playing the second night of a back-to-back. The Sabres, now 23-16-6, twice took the lead, only for the Lightning to roar back.
Yet, there did not seem to be a silver lining in the home dressing room. After all, Buffalo fell out of the second wild-card spot with Montreal's 3-0 win over Colorado.
"Sure, there’s frustration," Sabres winger Sam Reinhart said. "But we’re right there. There’s no time to dwell on it. We’re right in the hunt. That’s where we wanted to be at the start of the year."
There are 37 games remaining for the Sabres to position themselves among the top eight in the Eastern Conference, beginning with a three-game road trip to western Canada.
They are still only two wins away from matching their total from all of last season and again proved capable of trading chances with the league's best.
However, the Sabres have won only six of their last 20 games since they led the NHL in points entering a Nov. 29 game at Tampa Bay. They've been plagued by inconsistent play in all three zones.
Buffalo found solutions Saturday, albeit for roughly 55 minutes. Reinhart, winger Tage Thompson and defenseman Marco Scandella scored. The latter's goal with 14:06 remaining in regulation gave the Sabres a 3-2 lead against the top team in the NHL.
Tampa Bay, 35-8-2, has won 18 of its last 20 games and holds a 14-point lead over Toronto for first in the Atlantic Division. It scored only 26 seconds into the game when a blocked shot gave Brayden Point an open look in front of Ullmark.
The Sabres answered five minutes later when Jeff Skinner collected a loose puck along the right-wing boards and passed to Reinhart, whose wrist shot went over backup goalie Louis Domingue's glove.
Thompson capped the period when he received a 2-on-1 pass from Zemgus Girgensons and poked the puck in with only 10 seconds remaining for a 2-1 lead. The Sabres had more shots (16-6) and shot attempts (27-12) in the first 20 minutes.
"They’re a good team," defenseman Zach Bogosian said. "Whenever you play against top players or top teams in the league you try to elevate your game."
The lead did not last because of another poor defensive play.
Tampa Bay tied the score 7:50 into the second period when defenseman Mikhail Sergachev skated by Vladimir Sobotka and made a pass to the slot, where Scandella was unable to prevent Ondrej Palat from directing the puck into the net.
"We made the wrong mistakes at the wrong time during the game," coach Phil Housley said.
Scandella regained the lead for the Sabres at 5:54 into the third period when he joined the rush to create a 2-on-1 and capitalized from the slot on a Jason Pominville pass.
It all unraveled from there. Nikita Kucherov tied it again 23 seconds later after Lawrence Pilut's defensive-zone turnover. The Sabres had a power play with 6:33 left in regulation, but that lasted only 23 seconds because Eichel was penalized for elbowing Ryan McDonagh in the back of the head.
Stamkos scored 54 seconds later during the 4-on-4 when Jake McCabe turned the puck over in the defensive zone, beginning the Lightning's rush up the ice. With only Casey Mittelstadt and Rasmus Ristolainen back to defend, Kucherov made a drop pass to Stamkos, who dragged the puck into the slot and scored his 24th goal of the season.
"It’s frustrating that it ends like that, but you can’t blame the refs obviously," Eichel, who called his elbow incident contact, said. "It’s a fast game out there. They’re making calls. They’re part of the play, too. I think we just have to find a way. I feel like we’re close right now. We just have to get over that hump."
Ryan Callahan's power-play goal with 1:19 remaining sealed the game. The Sabres' progress can't be measured by only one game against a team that's on a historic pace, however, it was another ugly finish that cost them two points in the standings.
They missed more opportunities to score – including 33 seconds of a 5-on-3 in the first period – which continued a troubling trend. The Sabres have a negative-9 goal differential since the 10-game winning streak ended Nov. 29.
"We're facing a little adversity here and we have to overcome that," Housley said.