BUFFALO – After one of their most disappointing losses of the season, the Buffalo Sabres have come back with two wins and stellar play from both their defense and backup goaltender.
Interim coach Ron Rolston said the team talked about its lack of effort after losing 5-1 to the Montreal Canadiens at home on Thursday and has since then reeled off consecutive victories.
Jhonas Enroth stopped 32 shots in his second straight start Sunday as Buffalo defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-1 at First Niagara Center.
With the win, Buffalo jumped ahead of the New Jersey Devils in the standings. The Sabres are now 10th in the Eastern Conference with 42 points, four behind the eighth-place New York Rangers with five games remaining.
"I think the guys in the room believe that they're a playoff team," Rolston said. "We've had some setbacks in the last week, especially the Montreal game. There's a lot of pride in that room and guys were able to bounce back on the weekend and put [in] some good efforts back to back."
The Sabres are 5-2-0 in their past seven games. Buffalo has had its troubles against the Southeast Division this season. Heading into the game, the club was 2-9-2 in head-to-head matchups against teams from Tampa Bay's division.
Tyler Ennis, Jochen Hecht and Kevin Porter scored for Buffalo. Benoit Pouliot had Tampa Bay's lone tally. Mathieu Garon made 19 saves for the Lightning.
Enroth, coming off a 29-save shutout of the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday, earned the start again for Buffalo. It's the first time he's started consecutive games since he started nine straight from Nov. 14-Dec. 2, 2011. Ryan Miller was out with a concussion during that time.
Enroth has now appeared in three straight games since relieving Miller after two periods Thursday against the Canadiens. It's the first time Enroth has appeared in three consecutive games since Jan. 14-18, 2012.
"He's been playing so well and he had the shutout [Saturday]," Rolston said. "We wanted to get him back out there."
Enroth has been playing very well of late, allowing two or fewer goals in six of his past seven appearances. His shutout streak lasted 96:11 over three games. He said he was expecting to play again Sunday, but he's not sure if he's earned the opportunity to be back between the pipes for a third straight game on the road Wednesday against the Boston Bruins.
"I don't know. We've still got one of the world's best goalies in here, too, in [Miller]. So yeah, we'll see what happens," Enroth said.
The last time Miller sat back-to-back games while healthy was Nov. 4-5, 2011, following a stretch in which he had lost four straight games.
The Lightning remained at 37 points, nine points behind the Rangers and teetering closer to being eliminated from playoff contention. Tampa Bay is 1-4-1 in its past six games. However, the Lightning are resigned to that fact that making the playoffs is pretty much a pipedream at this point.
"We've hit that point where we're out of the playoff chase, so I think reality at some point sinks in," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "They're only human. They know that we have a few games left and we have no chance for the playoffs, so I think mentally, they're human in there. They know what's going on."
Buffalo has allowed one goal in the past two games with a defensive corps that looks very different from the one that started the season.
Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr, who were in the opening-day lineup, have been traded away for draft picks, as has TJ Brennan. Tyler Myers is out for the season with a broken bone in his leg and Alexander Sulzer is on injured reserve with a knee injury.
Buffalo's current top six looks somewhat like a patchwork quilt of defensemen.
Christian Ehrhoff, who played a game-high 26 minutes against the Lightning, has been the Sabres' only real constant on the blue line. Andrej Sekera has battled injuries but is now playing top-pair minutes with Ehrhoff. Mike Weber started the season as a healthy scratch for the first five games. Chad Ruhwedel is a college free agent who signed with the Sabres hours before the team's game on Saturday. Adam Pardy and rookie Mark Pysyk both started the season in Rochester of the American Hockey League.
Weber played 20:54 and had two blocked shots Sunday and said that the members of the defense see a great opportunity in being able to be big contributors down the stretch.
"In this group of six right, there's a lot to prove and a lot to gain here. Everyone's bared down and I say the word ‘solid' a lot, but that's what we've been. We've been extremely solid," Weber said.
The Sabres got off to an early start with a power-play goal by Ennis at 4:09 of the first period. Buffalo's leading scorer Thomas Vanek sent a no-look, backhand pass to the front of the net for Ennis to slide in on Garon's stick side.
The goal was Ennis' first in 12 games and his first point in seven. He now has 10 goals on the season.
"It felt good. Kind of the monkey off my back [and] a great pass by [Vanek]," Ennis said. "It seemed like forever since the last time I scored so I was happy."
It was also Buffalo's first power-play goal in seven games, having gone 0-for-20 during that span. The Sabres' power play is ranked last in the NHL.
Hecht scored exactly eight minutes into the second period, skating in on the right wing and beating Garon with a wrist shot from the faceoff circle. Garon managed to get a piece of it, but the shot squeaked in between his body and left arm.
With 7:23 left in the second period, Porter recovered a broken 2-on-1 rush to put Buffalo ahead 3-0. Skating in with wing Brian Flynn, Porter's pass was too hard and bounced off the right wing boards. Drawing defenseman Victor Hedman to him, Flynn threw the puck on goal and Porter tipped it in for his fourth goal this season.
Pouliot scored with 6:30 remaining in the second to put the Lightning on the board. Standing at the top of the faceoff circle, he deflected Eric Brewer's wrist shot from the point in. Pouliot now has eight goals.
Tampa Bay came into the matchup second in the League with 3.20 goals per game. The Lightning have scored at least three goals in each of their past three games, including five on Saturday in an overtime loss to the Washington Capitals. The last time they failed to score at least two goals in a game was on March 14, when they were blanked by the New York Islanders.