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Sabres, Jeff Skinner avoid disaster, pull away for win over defending Cup champs

Jack Eichel feared the worst. He wasn't the only one, either.

The sold-out crowd in KeyBank Center went silent as Jeff Skinner, the Buffalo Sabres' leading goal scorer, clutched at his left knee and needed to be helped to the bench Saturday afternoon.

While Skinner was being examined by the team's medical staff, his teammates perservered and the 26-year-old winger returned for the third period to help secure an important two points on home ice.

Sam Reinhart had a hat trick, including the Sabres' fourth and fifth goals, and Carter Hutton made 31 saves to beat the Washington Capitals, 5-2, and snap a four-game losing streak. Buffalo, 29-24-8 with 66 points, kept pace in the Eastern Conference playoff chase after falling to this season's Cup favorites, Tampa Bay, in a shootout two nights earlier.

Not only can the Sabres rest easy with Skinner appearing to avoid serious injury, they saw again how they will need to play during this late-season playoff push.

"We know what we’re capable of, but at the same time any team in this league is capable of having a performance like that," said Reinhart, who had the Sabres' first hat trick on home ice since Dec. 2017. "We’re just trying to be more consistent. Learn how to do that."

After scoring six goals in its previous four games, Buffalo had 38 shots on Capitals goalie Braden Holtby. Jason Pominville and Rasmus Dahlin scored goals, the latter occurring on the power play with Skinner still in the dressing room late in the second period.

Mike Harrington: Skinner scare should remind Sabres to live more in the present

Ten different Sabres had at least one point — including a team-high two assists for Eichel, who has set a new career-high with 66 points — and they did not buckle after the Capitals (34-21-7) twice cut the lead to one goal.

More important, Buffalo did not give Washington much room in the defensive zone. Alex Ovechkin scored a breakaway goal, his NHL-leading 44th of the season, at 2:28 into the second period, and André Burakovsky made it 3-2 by deflecting Christian Djoos' shot into the net with 15:44 remaining in regulation.

Otherwise, the Sabres limited the Capitals' chances to the outside and had few blown coverages in the defensive zone. Buffalo also did a better job managing the puck and avoided disaster by executing the game plan coach Phil Housley has been drilling since the onset of training camp.

"They can see it’s effective," Housley said. "Sometimes it’s not pretty and we have to make the right decisions. Obviously, we tell them they have to make plays, just make the right decisions. … Usually when we’re managing the game we’re going north, we’re not chasing anything and using our energy in the right area."

Hutton, making his second consecutive start, bailed the Sabres out when mistakes were made, including his highlight-reel stop on Lars Eller early in the second period. However, they were dealt a blow at 4:42 into the second period when Carl Hagelin tripped Skinner away from the puck.

Skinner's left ankle buckled and he fell to the ice after initially trying to skate to the bench on his own. An unrestricted free agent at season's end, he recalled feeling an intense pain and surprised his teammates by joining them in the dressing room during the second intermission.

"There’s a lot of things that go through your mind," said Skinner, who assisted on Pominville's goal. "At first you’re just wondering what’s wrong with it. ... The tests went pretty well and I was able to come back. That was fortunate."

Shaken but not defeated, the Sabres held the Capitals scoreless for the rest of the second period, despite allowing 15 shots on Hutton. Conor Sheary, filling in for Skinner, kept an offensive-zone power-play possession alive, and Buffalo capitalized when Dahlin scored on a one-timer shot with 31 seconds left in the second period.

The Sabres lacked any sort of snarl or emotion in losses to New Jersey and Florida earlier in the week, failing to finish checks or execute offensively. This time, Reinhart fought his way in front of Holtby and deflected Matt Hunwick's shot through Holtby for a 4-2 lead only one minute, 27 seconds after Burakovsky's goal.

The Capitals (34-21-7), who were playing the final game of a six-game road trip, went six minutes without a shot on goal in the first period and had only eight shots in the final 20 minutes. This after the Sabres nearly beat the NHL-leading Lightning on the road Thursday night.

“Yeah, I mean I thought we’ve done a good job the last two games for sure," Eichel said. "I thought we’ve defended when we need to, we’ve worked hard, we played pretty desperate. Obviously, two good teams, I thought we had two good performances, so I think that’s something to be happy about for us. We’ve just got to build off of it.”

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