DALLAS -- Sam Reinhart and Marco Scandella skated slowly through the neutral zone, both hunched over and gasping for air while the Dallas Stars congratulated one another near their bench in American Airlines Center.
The Buffalo Sabres had just fired two shots on goal in the final one minute, 33 seconds of regulation, only to have both stopped by Stars goalie Ben Bishop. They also had the possible tying goal called off because of goaltender interference earlier in the third period.
In the end, the Sabres spent too much time and energy trying to keep the puck out of their own net, resulting in a 1-0 shutout loss to the Stars on Wednesday night. It was the first time Buffalo was held scoreless since a season-opening 4-0 loss to Boston nearly four months earlier.
The stakes are far greater now, though. The Sabres (25-19-6) fell to three points back of Columbus for the second wild-card playoff spot, and playing two strong periods was little consolation.
"I think we were just on our heels early," Nathan Beaulieu, who was called for interference on the no goal, said. "That’s a big, physical team that skates really well. I thought they got in our face early, and I liked our team’s push back. I thought we dominated the second 40 [minutes]. Unfortunately, we just couldn’t get one."
The Sabres outshot the Stars, 30-27, including 14-7 in the third period, and controlled play for much of the final 20 minutes. Buffalo goalie Linus Ullmark made 26 saves, two of which came in the final three minutes to allow coach Phil Housley to empty the net for an extra attacker.
The Sabres' final rush began with Jeff Skinner blocking Roman Polak's shot, however, Bishop stopped shots from Rasmus Ristolainen and Jack Eichel to secure Dallas' third win in eight games.
It appeared Scandella tied the score with 15:32 remaining in regulation with a shot from the left point, but it was ruled a no goal because Bishop was knocked over by Beaulieu, who said afterward he may have been pushed by Stars defenseman Jamie Oleksiak. The call stood after a review.
"On the play it felt like I got pushed in," Beaulieu said. "It can go either way. It’s tough to say. It’s not going to get overturned now, so I can’t really worry about it.”
The 60 minutes played Wednesday were in stark contrast to the Sabres' performance in a 5-4 win over Columbus one night earlier. This was more of a physical, old-school hockey game, as opposed to more of a track meet against the Blue Jackets.
The Stars (25-21-4) tried to intimidate the Sabres from the opening faceoff. Rasmus Dahlin was checked seemingly every time he touched the puck. Buffalo's forwards were slow to respond and its defensemen accounted for seven of the team's 10 shots on goal in the first period.
"We just have to feel comfortable," Housley said. "This is the way it’s going to be. It was like a playoff atmosphere out there. … I think we got comfortable with the situation. We stayed the course. We managed the game from that point. We had some good looks."
Not as good as looks gifted to the Stars. Following a season-long trend, the Sabres made mistakes in their own zone. Defenseman Zach Bogosian turned the puck over at his own blue line with an errant pass to the Stars' Taylor Fedun. Fedun, who was traded by Buffalo to Dallas in November, passed to Jamie Benn, who shot between Ullmark's legs for a goal at 8:39 into the first period.
Tyler Seguin hit the post after Ristolainen committed a similar turnover later in the period, and Ullmark had to stop Mattias Janmark's breakaway only 1:21 into the game.
Dallas, which scored only seven goals in its previous five games, had not played in 11 days because of the All-Star break and bye week.
"That’s their first game off their break; they kind of did to us what we did to Columbus last night," Sabres forward Evan Rodrigues said. "They seemed to have fresh legs. We were a little too cute early on. Instead of making the simple plays we tried to go through the middle, not get it deep. We weren’t ready to play the right way."
That is a lesson the Sabres continue to struggle with. Starting fast in a game is often followed by a second-period lull, and most slow starts have been followed by better finishes. That consistency has resulted in only eight wins in their past 25 games.
Additionally, Buffalo has not won back-to-back games since Dec. 11-13.
On one hand, its secondary scoring has started to flourish. The Sabres had 14 different players score at least once in their previous seven games entering Wednesday. Additionally, both goalies performed well during this brief two-game road trip. They even played better defensively against Columbus.
This team is still "learning," Housley repeated following the shut out. His power play failed to score on its only opportunity and is 1-for-25 over the past 10 games. Dahlin also looked like a rookie, and Casey Mittelstadt's line was on the ice for roughly one minute, 40 seconds late in the third period because it was pinned in its own zone, preventing Housley from pulling Ullmark earlier.
More important, the Sabres are adjusting to life as a playoff contender. Only two penalties were called against the Stars, despite Eichel being driven face-first into the boards by Benn in the third period. And the margin for error is thin, even against inferior offenses such as Dallas'.
"There's no moral victories at this point in the season," Eichel said. "It's either you get two points or you don't."