Allowing what Marcus Johansson described as a "fluky goal" to the Detroit Red Wings only 27 seconds into the game Tuesday night could have sent the Buffalo Sabres into a tailspin.
The Sabres dropped four of their first five games out of the All-Star break, including a shootout loss to last-place Detroit, and coach Ralph Krueger acknowledged his players are lacking confidence on home ice.
Rather than folding under the pressure of an early deficit Tuesday night, the Sabres scored 36 seconds later, their first of two tying goals, and Sam Reinhart delivered the game-winner in the third period to beat the Red Wings, 3-2, in KeyBank Center.
The catalyst behind what Krueger called an "important win:" Johansson, a 29-year-old forward signed last June to provide the Sabres with secondary scoring and playoff experience. He had one goal with one assist for his first multipoint game since Jan. 4, and delivered one of his finest performances of the season while playing his natural position on the wing.
"Felt a little bit more comfortable and felt like I started making some plays," Johansson acknowledged after scoring his first goal in 15 games. "I had the puck more on my stick and kind of where I’m used to having it a little more maybe. I felt a little bit better. Moving in the right direction."
Johansson has endured a difficult first season in Buffalo. He signed a two-year, $9 million contract in July and was forced to play center, a position he had not manned full time since 2011-12. Johansson was outstanding in his first month as a Sabre, posting four goals with six assists in his first 17 games.
However, Johansson missed seven games after suffering an injury in the Sabres' final game in Stockholm on Nov. 9. Entering Tuesday night, he had scored only two goals with 10 assists with a minus-17 rating in his previous 31 games, shooting only 3.7% during that span. He is averaging a career-high 17:39 of ice time this season.
Johansson switched sticks earlier this season while attempting to regain his feel for the puck. Krueger moved Johansson back to wing at times but the change never stuck because of various injuries and roster constraints. The emergence of Curtis Lazar and improved play of Evan Rodrigues allowed Krueger to make the switch again Tuesday night.
Johansson delivered on his first shift with an assist from Lazar. After a neutral-zone turnover by Detroit, Lazar corralled a pass and left the puck for Johansson at the blue line. Lazar then skated toward the net to draw two Red Wing defenders to the hash marks.
The move allowed Johansson to carry the puck into the left circle, where he sent a pass over Tyler Bertuzzi's stick to Sheary, whose shot from the high slot went over Jonathan Bernier's glove to tie the score, 1-1, at 1:03 into the game.
"I’ve been playing with JoJo a bit, adding Lazar to that, he’s kind of responsible," Sheary, who scored his first goal in 14 games, said. "He does all the little things right. He gets in on the forecheck and wins battles. Jo can obviously make a lot of good plays and on my goal he found me over someone’s stick. It was a really good chance. I think we just fed off each other and read off each other well tonight."
"It’s awesome, especially I thought Johansson played great tonight, too," Carter Hutton said after making 27 saves. "He’s been working at it and fighting it a little bit at times. He’s one of the favorites in this room here, so it was a big night for him. That was huge."
It was an important response after Darren Helm scored off his own rebound on the first shift of the game. The Sabres' second goal against wasn't the result of a bad bounce, though. Rasmus Ristolainen lost a battle for a loose puck in the corner and Brandon Montour was caught standing on the wrong side of the net.
The mishap allowed Anthony Mantha to make a centering pass to a wide-open Helm, whose second goal of the game gave Detroit a 2-1 lead 7:02 into the second period. It was part of an ugly 20-minute stretch for the Sabres, as they allowed multiple odd-man rushes and struggled to sustain pressure in the offensive zone.
Again, Johansson provided a lift. Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin carried the puck across the opposing blue line, cut across the high slot to draw multiple defenders and left a drop pass for Johansson in the right circle.
Johansson fired a wrist shot over Bernier's glove to tie the score, 2-2, with 5:01 remaining in the second period. It was Johansson's seventh goal of the season and his first since Dec. 31.
"He’s got that skill set of changing directions and all that pretty quickly," Johansson said of Dahlin, whose 76 career points are tied for the third-most by a teenage defenseman in NHL history. "Created enough room for me to get that shot off."
Johansson earned a season-high plus-3 rating when he was on the ice for Reinhart's go-ahead goal 57 seconds into the third period, the result of Henri Jokiharju's shot ricocheting off the end boards. Jack Eichel used his left skate to direct the puck into the crease, and Reinhart managed to jam it over the goal line for his 21st goal of the season, four off his career high.
Johansson played six minutes, two seconds during a third period in which the Sabres fended off a Red Wings push that included 10 shots on goal over the final 20 minutes. Krueger acknowledged afterward that playing the wing freed up Johansson to create more offensively.
The Sabres may need to consider making it a full-time position switch for Johansson. After all, they scored two or fewer goals in six of their previous eight games. Buffalo is relying heavily on the offensive brilliance of Eichel, whose primary assist on the go-ahead goal gave him 70 points this season.
Jeff Skinner's goal drought reached a career-high 19 games, while role players such as Michael Frolik aren't creating enough offensively. The Sabres (25-24-9) are 10 points out of third place in the Atlantic Division with home games against Columbus and Toronto this week.
If Buffalo is to make a surprising push, it will need the sort of supplementary scoring Johansson provided Tuesday night.
"We need our secondary scoring to get confidence and with Johansson scoring today too, that’s the kind of effort we need," Krueger said. "We can’t just rely on Jack’s line to carry it all the time. For us to rise up to the challenges ahead here with teams, these four-point games coming up here against Columbus, against Toronto, teams like that where we can really make a move here, we need everybody involved offensively and defensively. So, that gives us some good confidence going into these next games.”