The margin for error was greater when the Buffalo Sabres captivated the hockey world with their unprecedented 10-game winning streak in November.
Not anymore. Less than a handful of teams are out of playoff contention in the NHL, meaning every team is playing desperate every game. The Sabres learned that fact in a gut-wretching way by allowing four or more goals in eight of 10 games, causing them to tumble down the Eastern Conference standings.
Their performance Tuesday night powerfully illustrated how they found a possible solution that could keep them relevant well past this month's trade deadline. Backed by Linus Ullmark's 24 saves, the Sabres grinded out a 3-1 win over the red-hot New York Islanders in KeyBank Center.
Buffalo (28-21-7) has won two of its last three and a win Friday against the New York Rangers would give it nine points during the seven-game homestand. As a result, the Sabres are within two points of the second wild-card playoff spot and have surpassed their point total from all of last season.
"It’s not flashy hockey, but it’s that time of year," Jason Pominville, who scored his 13th goal of the season on one of the Sabres' 22 shots, said. "It’s that time of year you need to defend to win games. I think everyone is starting to realize that."
The Sabres' performance was in stark contrast to how they played in a 6-5 overtime loss to Carolina last Thursday. The Islanders (33-17-6) had allowed one or fewer goals 21 times this season and owned the NHL's best record since Dec. 15, sending them to the top of the Metropolitan Division.
They can be a bore to watch since the goal is to clog the neutral zone and pounce when opponents make mistakes. On paper, the matchup could not be worse for the impatient Sabres, who have routinely been too eager to score goals at the expense of their own net.
Coach Phil Housley emphasized the importance of forechecking and quickly reloading once the Sabres gained possession in their defensive zone. They also wanted to get the puck behind Islanders goalie Robin Lehner, and gain possession by winning one-on-one battles along the boards.
Buffalo succeeded in those facets in their previous two games, a 3-1 win over Detroit and 3-1 loss to Winnipeg, yet few teams have remained patient enough to beat the Islanders.
Following an ugly start to the game, the Sabres pounced at 16:25 into the first period when Jack Eichel won an offensive zone faceoff, and Jeff Skinner scored his 34th goal of the season with a high shot off a set play for a 1-0 lead.
“You’ve got to stay patient against a team like that," Eichel explained. "They check well for 60 minutes and they don’t give you a lot of room. They definitely are pretty opportunistic, but I thought Linus did a good job of making the saves tonight and our D did a pretty good job."
The Sabres continue to have defensive lapses minutes following a goal, but their mistake Tuesday was among their worst in weeks. Rasmus Ristolainen turned the puck over in the defensive zone, which resulted in Casey Cizikas' tying goal with 23 seconds left in the first period.
Yet, the mistake did not foil the Sabres' plan. They had few defensive breakdowns in the second period, and Eichel illustrated how better play in your own zone can lead to offense. The captain collected a turnover in his own end, raced up the left boards and made a backhanded pass toward the Islanders' goal.
Pominville was there to direct the puck through Lehner's legs for a 2-1 lead 6:49 into the second period. It was Eichel's second assist of the night and his 43rd of the season.
"You look at the Islanders, they’re a very good checking team," Housley said. "You’re not going to get a lot from them just by their goals against. I thought the guys did a terrific job. ... We allow that goal, it’s a bad bounce at the end of the first. I liked the way our guys responded."
Since their 10-game winning streak ended Nov. 29, the Sabres have struggled to get an important insurance goal and have not fared well when an opponent makes one final push. They allowed the tying goal in the final minute of regulation during last Tuesday's shootout win over Minnesota and cracked on the game-deciding goal Sunday against Winnipeg.
Ullmark bailed them out this time. The 25-year-old goalie stopped all 10 shots he faced in the third period, including Cal Clutterbuck's breakaway with 7:11 remaining. Following an Islanders blitz in the offensive zone, Buffalo's patience paid off when Johan Larsson scored with 2:25 left in regulation to make it 3-1.
The Sabres have allowed only five goals over their last three games -- tied for the fewest over any three-game span all season -- and have overcome weeks of inconsistent play to string together some of their best hockey since the winning streak.
"Chances were pretty tight, tough to earn," Pominville said. "Those are playoff-type games. Those are the games you want to find a way to win, and it’s nice to come out on top of that for sure."