CHICAGO – Pick any adjective you want. There's no way to adequately describe what the Buffalo Sabres did here Monday night, and especially the bizarre manner in which they finished their greatest comeback in 33 years.
The Sabres wiped out a four-goal deficit and pulled out a stunning 6-5 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Tage Thompson's power-play goal with 11.3 seconds left. But don't think for a second that was an ordinary man-advantage tally.
Thompson took a pass from Rasmus Dahlin and was trying a one-timer from the left circle but his stick blew up on the shot, leaving the puck to slide apparently harmlessly to the end boards.
Thompson whirled and sprinted toward the bench for a new stick while everyone in the building watched in shock as the puck pinballed off the boards, hit Chicago goalie Kevin Lankinen in the back of the skate and dribbled over the goal line for Thompson's team-high 28th of the season.
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"I was already halfway to the bench," Thompson said. "I heard our bench going nuts so I turned around and saw them chasing me down. I had no clue."
"He still got enough I guess you can say," said a smiling Alex Tuch. "It was a pretty crazy way to end a pretty insane game."
I never noticed Lankinen going crazy with his stick on the post until I saw this. I was watching Thompson getting mobbed. Insanity. https://t.co/6aaeD0mh85— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) March 29, 2022
The Sabres won a game after trailing by four goals for the fourth time in franchise history and the first since a 6-5 overtime win at Boston on Jan. 21, 1989. They also snapped a 10-game winless streak in Chicago (0-7-3) that dated to Jan. 7, 2007.
The result left both teams with 24-33-10 records. The Sabres are on a season-high six-game point streak (4-0-2), their longest run since a six-gamer in October, 2019.
"All I saw was the goal light go off and (Jeff Skinner's) hands go up," Tuch said. "I was looking back for Tommer because no one else touched that puck. And he's at the red line by the time it went in. And he was so mad because his stick had broken."
While Tuch was talking, Thompson entered the interview room to join him. Cracked Tuch to his teammate: "Game winner right here. You gonna keep that stick?"
Thompson walks in to interview room where Tuch is already talking and says, “They told me to join you.”Tuch: “Game winner right here. You gonna keep that stick?”Hilarious. #Sabres pic.twitter.com/Rn9fdBr0lA— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) March 29, 2022
"He had no idea that he scored until we were all together and he's like, 'So who scored?'" Tuch said. "And we're like, 'You.' Yeah, interesting to say the least."
"Before I knew it went in, I was pretty upset, yeah," Thompson said sheepishly. "That was a good opportunity there, a one-timer on a power play and pretty unfortunate your stick breaks. But not when it goes off the wall, off their skate and in. You take those bounces."
A chaotic season on and off the ice in the Windy City will leave the Blackhawks out of the playoffs for the second straight year and the fourth time in five seasons. The glory days of 2008-2017 that produced three Stanley Cups and two other trips to the West final are long gone.
The Sabres had nothing going and seemed ready to head to the airport for the charter flight home. But coach Don Granato made some tweaks to his forward lines and sent a surge of energy through his team.
Granato dropped struggling Tuch down the order to play with Cody Eakin and Zemgus Girgensons and put Vinnie Hinostroza with Thompson and Skinner. Kyle Okposo took Hinostroza's place with Dylan Cozens and Peyton Krebs. Tuch got the tying goal on a Victor Olofsson feed with 2:14 left to make it 5-5.
The Sabres were down, 3-0, after one period and it grew to 4-0 when Chicago's Seth Jones scored at 1:21 of the second period. But that big deficit was cut to one in a 10-minute span of the second period as Olofsson scored a pair of goals and Okposo was credited with a third after a Cozens shot ricocheted off him and a Chicago defenseman.
Hinostroza, the Chicago native and former Blackhawk, jammed home a loose puck at 2:39 of the third to tie the score. But Hinostroza then took a cross-checking penalty in front of the Chicago bench at 9:40. He was in the box when Alex DeBrincat scored his 38th of the season on an assist from South Buffalo native Patrick Kane to put Chicago back in front, 5-4.
The teams' first meeting since Nov. 17, 2019, marked the second straight game the Hawks struggled mightily with a big lead. They had a 3-0 advantage through 40 minutes Saturday in Vegas but quickly fell apart in the third period and suffered a 5-4 overtime loss to the Golden Knights on an goal by Evgeni Dadonov.
The Sabres outshot the Hawks, 37-21, including 29-13 over the final two periods.
"My takeaway from this game is don't worry about things being pretty," Granato said. "Get comfortable and messy because that's professional sports. Everybody's gonna pick you apart for this mistake and that mistake and the other and that's fine, but you gotta ignore it and move on."
"We take a lot of pride in the culture we're building and what we want to be in the future and I think we're trending in the right direction," Thompson said. "That game was just a product of our work. It wasn't a pretty game but good teams find a way to win and we're on our way to being a really good team."
Here are some other observations on the game:
1. Olofsson gets things rolling
Olofsson had a team-high three points in the game. He has five goals in the last nine games and this was his third multi-goal game of the season. His two goals in a six-minute span snapped the Sabres back to life as they cut the 4-0 deficit in half.
"You just gotta go one shift at a time," Olofsson said. "In that situation, we have to stay calm and just work hard and I think that's what we did. Finally got one back and a second one pretty quick after that. So we definitely got back into the game.
"It just shows great character. We never give up and this wasn't the first time. Just look at last night (Sunday's 5-4 overtime loss in New York), we fought back after a tough start. We weren't feeling great, but we still got a point out of that game. it's just a great group and we play for each other. That's when good things happen."
Equipped with untapped potential and a fiery competitiveness, Cozens has used his position on the ice and in the dressing room to be a catalyst for change in the organization.
2. Net results
It was terrible night in the crease at both ends of the ice. Lankinen came into the game with a 3.50 GAA and .889 save percentage and looked the part. He wasn't controlling rebounds and appeared to be panic-stricken in the crease at times as the Sabres made their comeback. Then came the winning goal that will land on highlight reels forever.
Buffalo's Dustin Tokarski – who had allowed four goals on 94 shots in his previous three starts – gave up four on the first nine shots he faced Monday. And DeBrincat's wrister from the left circle with 9:04 to go leaked through him high and simply has to be stopped.
3. Granato's homecoming
Granato grew up in the Chicago area, spent most of the day with his parents and visited with relatives after the game. The former Hawks assistant will never forget his first time as a head coach in the building.
"I love Chicago, it's where I grew up. But as I said over the summer, when there were other job openings, I wanted to be in Buffalo," the Sabres' coach said. "And I told our players that after the game, 'I feel like we all belong in Buffalo and this was huge for all of us.' Obviously I thanked our group for that effort, because it made it special for my family. But for me, it felt like another win with our guys. And that trumps anything right now. These are the guys you wake up and you go to work with every day. And to immerse in that is phenomenal."
4. Stripes alert
An interesting sidelight to the game was that it marked the NHL debut of 28-year-old Justin Kea as a referee, called up from the AHL. The 6-foot-4 Kea was the Sabres' third-round pick in 2012 but never played in the NHL due to concussion troubles. He played 71 games over four seasons in Rochester.
Kea worked with veteran referee Gord Dwyer, who was working his 1,106th NHL game.
The Sabres will be off Tuesday and return home to open a four-game homestand when they host Winnipeg Wednesday in KeyBank Center. Friday's game against Nashville will be preceded by the Rick Jeanneret banner raising ceremony, and fans should note that event begins at 6:40.
The Sabres then host Florida in a matinee on Sunday and Carolina on April 5 before returning to the road.