BUFFALO – Just two months ago, allowing the tying goal with 3.5 seconds left in regulation likely would’ve cooked the Sabres, defenseman Tyler Myers said.
“I would say it would be very tough for our group,” said Myers, whose goal 2:01 into overtime Monday clinched a 3-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens, the surging Sabres’ ninth triumph in 12 tries.
Back in January, the Sabres had morphed into a disjointed, ugly mess. They wilted under adversity. A playoff run seemed unfathomable.
On Monday, David Desharnais’ late tally following a mad scramble inside the First Niagara Center only forced the Sabres to regroup a bit. They handle any bad breaks well these days.
“We’ve come a very long way mentally as a team the way we responded after,” Myer said. “Those goals don’t feel good. The way we responded was a big sign of life.”
When Ryan Miller came to bench before overtime, the amped-up goalie implored his teammates.
“There was good emotion on the bench,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “There’s no use hanging your head. I think his message was, ‘Let’s go out and win this thing.’ He kept yelling, ‘Let’s go out and win it.’ I think that’s the kind of leadership you need.”
Miller said he told the Sabres “just don’t feel sorry for yourselves. Go and get the win.” He wanted to “snap everybody out of their shock.”
A couple of minutes later, Myers snapped what remained of the capacity crowd of 18,690 fans from their shock, beating goalie Peter Budaj on a three-on-three break.
As the trailer, Myers had a step on a Montreal defender. He grabbed Derek Roy’s pass a few steps inside the blue line, skated to the inside of the right circle and tallied his eighth goal.
“Just saw a chance to jump into the play,” Myers said. “It looked like I was able to beat that third man back. Roysie made a great little pass to me as a trailer.”
Remember, a 4-3 shootout loss in the Canadiens’ last visit Feb. 17 sent the Sabres into the basement, nine points out of the last playoff spot.
The Sabres (74 points, 12 games left) moved back into ninth place in the Eastern Conference, two behind Washington, which has a game in hand. The Sabres are two points ahead of 11th-place Winnipeg, which has also played 69 games.
What’s changed recently? Ruff credited having his full, veteran team. The Sabres have mostly stayed healthy since late January.
“It goes hand-in-hand with the personnel,” he said. “We’re a little bit older with the lineup we have now. We didn’t handle a lot of situations well. We beat ourselves a lot of time.”
Right now, the Sabres possess “a lot of belief,” said center Tyler Ennis, who scored twice.
“We got a lot of confidence right now,” he said. “I feel like we’re playing real well. We’re real confident in Millsie. He’s playing hard and making a lot of good saves for us.”
Indeed, Miller, who’s 9-1-1 with a 1.78 goals-against average and .944 save percentage in his last 11 games, has been performing dynamically.
But contributions from other players who had struggled have buoyed the Sabres recently.
Ennis, for example, is playing perhaps the best hockey of his 128-game career. He has three tallies in two games (he also scored the shootout winner Saturday) and six goals and 11 points in 13 contests.
The likable youngster started the season miserably, and then sprained his ankle badly twice.
Now, he’s possibly the Sabres’ top offensive threat.
After Erik Cole opened the scoring 4:32 into the game, Ennis’ scintillating, highlight-reel goal tied it 11:08 into the second period.
Ennis faked a shot in the left circle, undressed Andrei Markov near the slot and then beat Budaj after switching from his backhand to forehand.
“I was just going to take a slap shot, but I saw their D-man was a little flat-footed, so I thought I’d make a little move, and then I had a breakaway,” Ennis said. “I thought I’d just go back to my forehand.”
At 1:50 of the third period, Alexei Emelin knocked Ennis’ centering pass for Marcus Foligno into his own net.
“Lucky, yeah,” Ennis said. “I was just trying to go hard to Marcus because he was driving hard to the post.”
Ruff said he plans to keep Ennis, who’s been switching between pivot and wing, in the middle.
“He plays better and gets more ice when he plays center,” he said. “I think that’s really, for the most part, his home to stay.”