COLUMBUS, Ohio -- When the Buffalo Sabres were in jeopardy of watching two points slip away, Jack Eichel spoke up inside the visitors' dressing room.
An impassioned speech from the 22-year-old captain was an emotional response after he and his teammates let a two-goal lead slip away in the final three minutes and eight seconds of the second period Tuesday night in Nationwide Arena.
The Sabres responded with one of their finest performances in weeks, scoring the go-ahead goal 2:12 into the third period and holding on for a 5-4 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Instead of losing for the sixth time in eight games, Buffalo finally gained ground in the playoff chase, closing within two points of Pittsburgh for the second wild-card spot.
The Sabres, now 25-18-6, also matched their win total from all of last season. But their performance against Columbus, from start to finish, better illustrates how far they have come.
"I thought we played two really good periods until the last two or three minutes of the second," coach Phil Housley said. "That’s just something we’re learning as we go through this. Key times of the game, we have a two-goal lead. It’s a little puck management. It’s rush coverage. It’s coming in and funneling into our zone and knowing your responsibility. ... We just have to learn from it and move forward."
The Sabres had not played a game in 11 days because of the All-Star break and bye week, and this was their fourth consecutive road game. Additionally, the Blue Jackets (28-18-3) -- third in the Metropolitan Division with 59 points -- have playoff experience and top-end talent such as Artemi Panarin.
Still, Buffalo was the better team for all but three minutes Tuesday night. Housley's defense was mostly solid without the puck, there was another breakthrough with secondary scoring and Carter Hutton made timely saves. Hutton had 33 saves for only his third win in 13 starts.
Evan Rodrigues, Sam Reinhart and Tage Thompson scored in the first period to give the Sabres a two-goal lead. The Blue Jackets answered quickly in the second with Nick Foligno's power-play goal 21 seconds in, only for Jeff Skinner to score his 31st goal of the season 21 seconds later to make it 4-2.
Rasmus Dahlin, who finished with a plus-4 rating, had two assists to become the third defenseman in NHL history to have at least six multi-point games before their 19th birthdays, joining Housley and Bobby Orr. Eleven different Sabres had at least one point.
The Sabres had a number of chances to pull away in the second period, too. Casey Mittelstadt came charging down the ice with the puck for a 3-on-1 odd-man rush, only to have his pass broken up by Scott Harrington.
Sergei Bobrovsky also made timely saves and benefited from some puck luck, including a loose puck Thompson was unable to poke over the goal line. It appeared a rout was inevitable given the number of scoring chances, and the Blue Jackets' poor play in the offensive zone.
Following Mittelstadt's 3-on-1 chance, the Blue Jackets rushed up the ice and caught Marco Scandella out of position, leading to Brandon Dubinsky cutting the Sabres' lead to one at 16:52.
"We had a tough shift there in the second," Mittelstadt said. "We had a few chances and they go down and kind of get a lucky one. It’s never good. It was good to go back out there and get that one in the third. Obviously there are some things we can work on with [losing a] two-goal lead, but it was a really good response by our group in the third."
They did not respond quickly enough to prevent Columbus from tying the score, 4-4. The Sabres were unable to clear the puck from the defensive zone, and it ended up on Cam Atkinson's stick in the slot, where his high shot went over Hutton's glove with 33 seconds remaining in the second period.
The Sabres, who have a number of players without experience in meaningful games, have often folded this season after such breakdowns. Following Eichel's talk, Conor Sheary scored only 2:12 into the third period for the go-ahead goal.
"It’s a big goal," Skinner said. "It sort of swings momentum back into our favor."
The Sabres controlled the puck for much of the third period, yet they were unable to get a much-needed insurance goal. Their struggles when playing with the lead have become an alarming trend since the 10-game winning streak ended Nov. 29.
Though they could not break through with a goal, it was an otherwise strong finish. Shots were 12-12 in the final 20 minutes, despite Columbus having an extra attacker for the final 1:56 of regulation. Hutton made timely saves -- including his stop on Pierre-Luc Dubois' shot from atop the crease -- and the Sabres' porous defense limited the Blue Jackets to shot attempts from the perimeter.
"That’s a new-age NHL hockey game, right?" Hutton said. "It’s a lot of scoring, a lot of chances. It’s fun. Obviously, you want to hold a two-goal lead. ... We get a big goal early [in the third] and from there we did a good job locking it down. I thought we did great in the last three minutes. It was 6-on-5 hockey there for a while. They had a couple shots but just from the outside. Guys were blocking shots, battling. A real character win."