BUFFALO – The loss didn’t crush the Sabres. Sure, their fourth straight defeat certainly stung. They battled back and grabbed a late lead before Auston Matthews’ overtime winner with just 2.7 seconds left secured the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 4-3 victory.
But after arriving in Buffalo at 1 a.m. following Monday’s 2-1 loss in Nashville, the Sabres earned a point and had one of the NHL’s heavyweights on the ropes.
That’s probably why coach Phil Housley, whose Sabres have lost four straight one-goal contests (0-2-2) following their 10-game winning streak, sounded more proud than disappointed Tuesday.
“We were ready to play tonight,” Housley said. “We haven’t had a start like that in our last three games. But I give credit to the guys because the schedule and the travel and losing an hour and having to turn around against a really good hockey team. … I thought it was a back-and-forth game.”
If Tuesday’s wildly entertaining tilt is a harbinger of future meetings between the up-and-coming teams and rivals, then the next five or 10 years should be should be fun.
KeyBank Center buzzed all night. Two young American stars – Matthews, who has 15 goals in 14 games this season, and Jack Eichel – each scored twice, wowing the bipartisan, capacity crowd of 19,070.
Tuesday’s game was hockey at its most exciting.
“There was a certain grit to our game today that we really wanted to win,” Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark said. “There was no thought about losing. The will to win was way better than the anxiety of losing.”
The Sabres, of course, have slipped in the last week. Still, they’ve lost tight games to the NHL’s three best teams points-wise: the Tampa Bay Lightning, Nashville Predators and Toronto.
“We just played two of the top five teams in the NHL on a back-to-back and we traveled,” said Eichel, who scored his first goals in eight games, his sixth and seventh tallies. “I thought we played a great game tonight. Obviously, they get the extra point and it’s frustrating, but give us credit.
“I mean, anybody who has done it before, has played a back-to-back, knows it’s not easy, never mind going from Nashville to home and playing them. They’re sitting here waiting for us. It’s not easy, and I thought we brought a lot of compete and effort. They get the extra point.”
Sabres center Evan Rodrigues said: “At the end of the day, in the past four games, we’ve played three top-five teams, arguably. We lose three one-goal games. You got to hold your head up high.”
After Matthews opened the scoring in the second period, Sabres winger Sam Reinhart scored for the fourth straight game, giving him eight points in five contests.
Following Jake Gardiner’s goal late in the second period, Eichel took over, scoring 2:59 into the third period before putting the Sabres up at 12:57.
“Being down twice and finding a lead, it’s just a credit it to our guys,” Housley said. “I wish they would’ve gotten rewarded for their hard work tonight, because they played terrific.
“It was great atmosphere. A lot of young guys on our team got some valuable experience, how fast the game can be.”
Despite his low goal total, Eichel has compiled a whopping 34 points in 29 games.
“He’s been playing terrific,” Housley said. “Tonight he was a beast again. It’s good to see him finally find the net again. He’s contributing in so many other ways, not only just with scoring goals but playing a 200-foot game.”
But Patrick Marleau tied it 14:47 into the third period.
After the Sabres controlled most of overtime, the Leafs zoomed up the ice in the waning seconds.
Matthews unleashed from the top of the left circle, beating Ullmark on the far side.
“He makes that shot probably 10 times a year,” Rodrigues said. “He does that same thing over and over again. He’s got it down to a tee. It was a hell of shot, hell of a play.”