CALGARY – Jack Eichel would not be denied. His Buffalo Sabres teammates felt the same way from puck drop Wednesday night in Scotiabank Saddledome.
With the puck on the blade of his stick and the game on the line, Eichel passed over a line change and skated slowly through the neutral zone. He then picked up his pace into the right faceoff circle and fired a wrist shot over David Rittich's shoulder.
That goal 1:10 into overtime gave the Sabres a 4-3 win over the Western Conference's top team, the Calgary Flames, and snapped a three-game losing streak. Eichel's 16th goal of the season drew Buffalo to within two points of the second wild-card playoff spot, but it meant so much more to all involved on the visitors' side.
After allowing seven goals two days earlier and winning only six of their previous 21 games, the Sabres realized the type of performance it will take for them to beat the NHL's best in the season's second half.
"We really had the mindset we were going to win no matter what," Eichel said. "When that’s going down the bench and the whole team is feeling that way it’s a good feeling. It definitely helps you."
The Sabres, now 24-17-6 with 54 points, had lost seven of their previous nine and no longer hold a playoff position. Following their 7-2 loss in Edmonton, they arrived in Calgary determined to find a solution.
Buffalo did not have an immaculate performance against the Flames (30-13-5). The Sabres were outshot 12-3 in third period and overtime, but they scored on all three of those shots. Rasmus Dahlin and Jake McCabe had third-period goals to erase a deficit, only for Calgary to tie the score with Noah Hanifin's slap shot with 8:26 left in regulation.
The Sabres' penalty kill went 1-for-3 and they led for only 38 seconds. However, they played an outstanding defensive game, led by Linus Ullmark's 30 saves. Buffalo finished its checks and made it difficult for Calgary to find room around Ullmark.
None of Calgary's three goals were the result of an odd-man rush. Johnny Gaudreau scored with 0.5 seconds remaining in the first on a power-play rebound to make it 1-0, and Matthew Tkachuk made it 2-1 when he deflected a pass into the net at 6:49 into the third period.
The Flames were ranked second in the NHL in goals and owned a plus-40 goal differential this season, including plus-37 in the third period.
"We played to what our standard is," Sabres center Evan Rodrigues said. "We got away from it obviously the last month or so, but I think that’s the type of game we have to play. We have to play defense first and get on top of guys."
The Sabres had more shot attempts through two periods and more score chances. Eichel hit the post on a breakaway 19 seconds into the game and later missed the net on an open chance from the slot.
Finally, after a failed power play, the Sabres broke through when Casey Mittelstadt sprung Rodrigues for a breakaway, and Rodrigues tucked the puck between Rittich's legs to make it 1-1 at 9:45 into the second period.
"I just liked the response from our guys," coach Phil Housley said. "If you went right up and down our lineup, everybody contributed. Obviously Linus made some key saves for us, but we had some really good looks starting right off the bat."
Since their 10-game winning streak ended Nov. 29, the Sabres struggled when trailing in games. Jeff Skinner said Tuesday he noticed their confidence had waned in such situations. When Calgary took the lead on Tkachuk's third-period goal, Dahlin answered 45 seconds later when his one-timer slap shot was deflected over Rittich's glove.
Less than three minutes later, Kyle Okposo screened Rittich and Jake McCabe's wrist shot hit the back of the net for a 3-2 lead.
"It just seemed like we weren’t going to be denied," Eichel said.
Hanifin answered with his slap-shot goal to tie the score. Ullmark was brilliant from start to finish. He stopped Garnet Hathaway on a first-period breakaway, made an acrobatic glove save to rob Michael Frolik in the second and made two saves on Elias Lindholm to help kill a penalty later in the period.
Despite the shot totals, the Sabres entered overtime with momentum. Eichel, who had zero points in his previous five games, hit the post with a backhanded shot 34 seconds in. The Flames charged up the ice but did not get a shot on goal.
With the Flames clearly tired and his teammates headed to the bench for a line change, Eichel noticed Flames defenseman Mark Giordano was gassed. Eichel seemed to carry the puck in slow motion before scoring the game-winner.
It was his 16th goal of the season and his two points give him 51 in 44 games, making him the third-fastest player in franchise history to reach 50 points in a season. Only two players had a minus rating against the Flames, while seven different players had at least one point.
"For us, this is a game we should use moving forward as kind of a building block of what we can do every night to give ourselves the best chances to win," Eichel said.