The belief that fueled the Buffalo Sabres' unprecedented 10-game winning streak and their ascent to the top of the NHL has wavered over the past three months. That seemingly unflappable confidence was replaced with an emotional rollercoaster, as a young roster tried to cope with the constant challenges of a playoff push.
With their season on the brink Friday night in KeyBank Center, the Sabres finally reminded themselves that they can roar back from any deficit, no matter the odds.
Defenseman Brandon Montour scored with 2:32 left in regulation to send the game into overtime, and Conor Sheary 's game-winning goal completed a come-from-behind 4-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Sabres (30-26-8), 12th in the Eastern Conference entering the game, snapped a two-game losing streak and closed within seven points of the second wild-card spot, despite being outshot, 44-30, against the desperate Penguins (33-22-9)
It was fitting that Sheary, the 26-year-old winger who won two Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh, helped pen this latest comeback.
"I think early on in the season we had that [belief] a little bit more often," Sheary, who was awarded the game's first star after scoring two goals with an assist, said. "I hope tonight is a reminder of how good of a team we are and how good of a team we can be."
Patric Hornqvist and Sidney Crosby scored power-play goals 63 seconds apart late in the second period to give Pittsburgh a one-goal lead, a seemingly insurmountable deficit considering the Penguins were 27-0-2 this season when leading after two periods.
Yet, one of those two losses came against Buffalo, when Jack Eichel extended the Sabres' winning streak to six with his goal 45 seconds into overtime in Pittsburgh. Entering Friday, the Sabres had won only 12 of 38 games since the winning streak.
The Penguins pelted 20 shots on goal in the first 20 minutes Friday night, and the Sabres went 12 minutes without forcing goalie Matt Murray to make a save. Buffalo struggled to forecheck or break the puck out of its zone.
Additionally, the Sabres gave Pittsburgh six minutes of power-play time in the second period because of Scott Wilson's four-minute high-sticking double minor.
"Obviously whenever you put a team like that on the power play for as much as we did in the second I think, for one, it ruins the flow of the game and two you’re giving their best players a lot of touches and they’re getting into the game," Eichel explained. "They’re starting to feel themselves, so it’s never easy. ... I thought we did a good job coming out in the third and finding a way."
Though the Penguins had 33 shots on goal through two periods, Buffalo was within striking distance thanks to first-period goals from Eichel and Sheary. Eichel scored his 23rd of the season 3:09 into the game after Penguins defenseman Marcus Pettersson committed an ugly turnover, and Sheary added a power-play goal to regain the lead almost 10 minutes later on a centering pass from Kyle Okposo.
The Sabres were giving up too many quality scoring chances but were buoyed by the play of Linus Ullmark, who made 41 saves after allowing 11 goals over his previous three starts. Buffalo's blitz began with Ramus Dahlin's shot off Murray's blocker early in the third, and Eichel followed by missing the net on a near breakaway.
Murray then stopped Wilson's one-timer, and Jeff Skinner was robbed at the doorstep when Pettersson covered up a puck on the goal line. Finally, moments after Evan Rodrigues hit the post, Montour's first goal as a Sabre tied the score.
The Penguins' Evgeni Malkin nearly scored the winning goal in overtime after Ullmark misplayed the puck. However, Dahlin regained possession and entered the offensive zone before another Pettersson turnover gave Sheary the puck.
Sheary, who had scored only three goals in his previous 43 games entering the night and was brought to Buffalo partly because of his success in meaningful games, skated toward the slot and his left-handed shot went off the post and in with 49 seconds left in overtime to give the Sabres' their seventh win this season when trailing after two periods. The league's situation room challenged the goal for offsides but ruled that Dahlin had possession when entering the zone.
Yet, the performance won't mean much if the Sabres fail to win Saturday in Toronto. They have not won back-to-back games since Dec. 13, and only 18 regular-season games remain over the next five weeks. And Housley hopes their heroics Friday night illustrate what they are capable of when playing their best.
"It shows them they can still come back again, if they stay the course and stick with it," coach Phil Housley said. "These guys fought right through to the end."