BUFFALO – Emotionally, the Sabres’ 4-3 victory against the Carolina Hurricanes was a difficult game to play in, coach Ted Nolan said.
The bottom-feeders were skating for pride Monday. They Sabres were trying to stave off clinching 30th place for the second consecutive season.
“When you’re out of the playoffs and you’re trying to lift that emotional level up, it’s quite a challenge,” Nolan said following the Sabres’ third win in the last five outings.
At times, the two lightweights played some ugly, uninspired hockey inside the First Niagara Center. The game often looked like an exhibition contest. The teams barely hit each other. Zero penalties were called.
“I think it was a no-hitter in the first period,” Nolan said. “I think we had three hits and they had one in the first period. I stopped counting after that. I could’ve used both hands to count the hits.”
The announced sellout crowd of 19,070 was so quiet players could be heard on the press level high above the ice.
The Sabres allowed 23 shots in the first period – many of them low quality – and a season-high 52 overall. Still, they capitalized on some shoddy Carolina play, jumping out to a 4-0 lead before allowing three third-period goals.
If the Sabres had fully imploded and lost a game in which they led by four goals for first time March 12, 1987, it would’ve been a fitting way to cement last place and secure the first or second pick in June.
“There was a lot of rope-a-doping tonight,” Nolan said. “They got some real skilled players.”
But the Sabres staved off a Hurricanes blitz in the final minute – goalie Anders Lindback stopped Alexander Semin on the ice – and stayed in the hunt for 29th place. The Arizona Coyotes, who lead by two points, can clinch tonight if they win in Calgary.
“There’s only two games left, but we want to win them all,” Sabres winger Tyler Ennis said.
Eighty games into a trying season, the Sabres still haven’t quit.
“This is a good group of guys,” Nolan said. “They’ve been battling and giving us what they have, and sometimes when they haven’t even got much to give they keep giving it, and tonight it was a tough, emotional game to go through.
“And sometimes on the bench you hear (captain Brian) Gionta, ‘Say, hey boys, let’s pick it up.’ Or Marcus Foligno, for a young guy, he’s saying the same thing.”
The Sabres have picked up the offensive pace recently, scoring 24 goals in the last eight games. They have 151 goals, one more than last season, when they set the NHL all-time low record for goals in a full season.
Some luck helped Monday.
Mikhail Grigorenko’s weak shot from the slot beat Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward 5:41 into the game. The Russian center was surprised the puck went in.
“It felt good,” he said about his second goal in 23 games this season. “A goal is a goal. I don’t think anyone will remember if it’s a nice goal or an ugly goal.”
Gionta followed at 15:03, capitalizing on a Brett Bellemore giveaway.
“Sometimes pucks just find the net,” Nolan said. “Like Grigorenko’s, it wasn’t a bullet by no means, I think maybe a changeup, if anything. It goes. That’s what happens with offense. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not.”
Johan Larsson and Ennis scored in the second period.
Ennis, who’s often the Sabres’ lone offensive threat, hit the 20-goal milestone for the second straight season and the third time in his five-year career. The Sabres have had a 20-goal scorer every year in their history.
“Kind of one of those benchmarks you want to get to,” Ennis said. “Even when things aren’t going your way or things are frustrating, you always want to kind of play well individually and achieve some goals and continue to play with good habits.”
Patrick Dwyer scored late the second period before Alexander Semin and Eric Staal, who scored with Ward off with 5:22 left, got the Hurricanes back in it.
Then the Sabres, who have 54 points, two more than last season, hung on for their 23rd win.
“It’s a quality group of guys,” Ennis said. “We get along well. It’s a great group. It’s a hardworking group, and they want to stick around. Larsson’s a great example. Lindback’s been playing incredible. It just kind of shows you what kind of guy you are if things aren’t going your way and you’re still competing and working as hard as you can.”