The Edmonton Oilers are still a longshot to sneak into the Stanley Cup playoffs. But they're saving face with a 5-1-1 burst and three straight wins to finish a nine-day road trip.
Helps when Connor McDavid can put up five points in the last two games and make it look pretty effortless, too.
McDavid has seemed frustrated at times this season. Who wouldn't be with what's gone on in Edmonton? Coach Todd McLellan was fired in November and GM Peter Chiarelli was gone in January. The Oilers are still five points shy of a playoff spot, and if they can't make them up, it will be the third time in his four seasons he will miss the postseason.
"It's not tough mentally. You have to win games, find ways to put up points and hope and pray for a little help," McDavid said prior to Monday's 4-3 high-wire act over the Sabres in KeyBank Center. "Ultimately, all we can control is ourselves and that's what we've been trying to do."
One thing the Oilers need organizationally is stability. Sound familiar? The Sabres can use it, too, but they're teetering on the edge as the pressure mounts on coach Phil Housley, no matter how emphatic Jason Botterill's proclamation was a couple of weeks ago in Tampa.
Edmonton needs to figure out who will be its GM and then decide on a coach. It might be the Oilers' last chance to make those moves before McDavid some day heads to the authorities there and says "no mas."
That day, of course, would be a few years. But it's no stretch to think that McDavid's representatives and No. 97 himself likely would have some feedback to offer over what's being decided this spring.
"That's above me. It's not my job to hire anyone," McDavid insisted. "My job is to play hockey and that's all I focus on."
Sure thing. This was nonetheless another interesting confrontation between the forces of McDavid and Jack Eichel, who mirrored his team with two goals in a dominant opening salvo and then was too quiet down the stretch as a 3-1 lead was frittered away.
"We've been playing better, checking well," McDavid said. "I've really liked our game since we came back from the break, 10-11 games now. We've had a couple lulls but we've been pretty good."
McDavid, 22, is in the first year of his eight-year, $100 million contract and has 92 points, third in the NHL. And he's been a huge reason Leon Draisaitl is now a 41-goal scorer. Pretty sick shorthanded goal they combined on in the first 90 seconds of the game.
"He's obviously a special talent," Draisaitl said. "If you know that it's coming, it's not too hard to figure out where to go and find open ice. Real nice play by him."
"When you put those two together on one line, they're very dynamic," Sabres coach Phil Housley said after the morning skate in words that proved prophetic. "They drive their engine over there ... they bring a speed element like no other in the NHL."
But McDavid also had the blooper reel moment of his career late in the game when he had an easy route to the open-net clincher -- and flubbed it by sliding the puck off the post.
The puck went back into the Edmonton zone and Draisaitl took a penalty, giving the Sabres a chance on the power play in the final 45 seconds. But Buffalo could not get the equalizer and Edmonton could exhale.
"Those things happen in the game. He missed it. That happens," said Edmonton coach Ken Hitchcock. "But how about the play he makes later when he stays with it in the neutral zone just to get the puck deep? He's a special player and he's become a special competitor, which is a good sign."
The bad signs continue to flow for the Sabres. Dropped coverages. Untimely mistakes in goal, this time by Linus Ullmark. Another one leaking through and ever-so-slowly crossing the goal line, this time with 4.3 seconds left in the second period. It's happening to Ullmark or Carter Hutton virtually every game and it's soul crushing for their team.
That's seven times in 10 games Buffalo has given up four goals or more. All teams drop coverage and give up scoring chances at times. Even Tampa Bay. Once in a while you need a save from your goalie. Or three or four of them.
Since Dec. 1, the Sabres are 27th in the NHL in goals against at 3.41 per game. Their defensive coverage remains abhorrent but there's a reason goalies are there. They're supposed to cover up for mistakes and they're not doing it.
Make a save.
The temptation was there to go in the Sabres dressing room and ask Sam Reinhart if his team needed more saves. No point. After agreeing with the notion, he probably would have just changed his mind Tuesday morning anyway.
"You don't want to give up any goals. Not at the end of the period and not in bunches like we gave up at the end of the second," rationalized Eichel. "You're going to give up goals. It's about our willingness to bounce back and be resilient. ... At the end of the day, this year it's not enough for us when the other team gets two points and you get none. It's tough to hang your hat on a good effort or competing."
Unfortunately for the Sabres, it didn't go like that for Edmonton. Mikko Koskinen did enough in the Oilers net to prevent the Sabres from taking a three-goal lead until McDavid & Co. got things going.
Said Hitchcock: "I thought when it was 3-1, our goalie held us together."