Even going back to their practice on Tuesday afternoon, Dan Bylsma could sense a difference in the mentality of his team. The Buffalo Sabres were coming off of back-to-back losses at home, and their self-assessment following those two games had been as critical as it was all season.
When they practiced on Tuesday, and before they took the ice for their final home game of the season against the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday, there was a feeling in the room that gave Bylsma the sense his team would have a better showing this time out.
"One where we wanted to get back on the ice and kind of put it out there again for our team, for our fans," the coach elaborated.
Rasmus Ristolainen and Tyler Ennis scored goals, Robin Lehner put forth a rebound effort in net and, just as Bylsma had thought, the Sabres were able to end their home slate thanking their fans at center ice in the wake of a 2-1 victory.
"Obviously I liked the result but I also liked how we played the game and we played for the 60 minutes," Bylsma said. "I thought we played where we had to play, outcompeted them. They certainly had a couple opportunities but I liked the way our guys played."
"This was a more complete game," alternate captain Ryan O'Reilly added. "I thought we did a lot of things better. We played more together, we supported each other and yeah, it was a nice win. "
In the first period of their loss to Toronto on Monday, Buffalo was outshot 18-2 en route to an early 3-0 deficit. With that in mind, it was significant that the Sabres were able to strike first, particularly against one of the League's top goaltenders in Montreal's Carey Price.
It was Ristolainen who was responsible for the first goal, which came a mere 6:01 into the contest. The play began with an interception of a breakout pass by Jack Eichel, who evaded a defender and moved the puck up to Josh Gorges at the blue line. Gorges quickly passed across to Ristolainen, whose shot beat Price and went bar-down into the net.
Video: MTL@BUF: Ristolainen banks shot in off the post
Ennis added to the lead with 9:25 remaining into the second period. Upon entering the offensive zone, he deked around a defender to feed Evander Kane down low. Kane moved the puck to the slot, where Ennis was able to steal it away from Nikita Nesterov and beat Price with a quick shot through traffic.
Video: MTL@BUF: Ennis scores off quick turnover
The goal was Ennis' first since Feb. 12. With the opportunities he had, including a breakaway that was stifled by Price in the third period, he joked afterward that he was upset he had to settle for one.
Still, it's hard to imagine that the goal didn't feel good. Ennis spent last season recovering from a concussion and much of this season recovering from groin surgery. A month ago, he said, he may not have had the legs to get to the loose puck in the slot that preceded his goal.
"It's been a while, coming off the concussion for a while and having the groin surgery, it's been tough and frustrating and it's been a long time [since] I feel like I could play healthy hockey and enjoyed making plays and being out there and being quick," he said. "Tonight was fun."
Lehner allowed all three of the first-period goals against Toronto on Monday, which were scored in the span of 43 seconds and resulted in his being pulled after facing just five shots in 5:06. He came back with a 31-save effort in this game, allowing just one goal on a breakaway to Tomas Plekanec 46 seconds into the third period.
Video: MTL@BUF: Lehner stretches to corral loose puck
"I thought he was excellent tonight," Bylsma said.
As much relief as there was for ending their home schedule win, it was matched by the disappointment of the fact that the end had come too soon. When they thanked the fans after the game, multiple players said that another season with no playoffs was what stood out on their minds the most.
"It's disappointing," O'Reilly said. "This isn't what we want. It's very upsetting. It's a city that deserves a winning team and it's an organization that deserves a winning team and we should be. We underachieved. We're all disappointed in here."
"It's the most important part," Ennis, the longest-tenured Sabre, added. "It was a season that they showed up and bought tickets and ended up in the seats and cheered and we didn't put the best product on the ice for them. I think it was a letdown. I think we let them down and we need a better effort next year."
Update on Kyle Okposo
Kyle Okposo has been ill since missing the team's game in Columbus last Tuesday, and the Sabres issued this statement regarding his condition during the game on Wednesday night:
"He brings a special element to our team and our locker room every day and obviously he's a special player on the ice that we definitely miss," Eichel said. "It's never easy to see a guy that you care so much about and we all care [very] much about Kyle. It's never easy to see him go through what he's going through, not feeling well. We just want to all be here to support him and wish him all the best. Hopefully he gets healthy soon."
O'Reilly, too, spoke highly of Okposo's presence on the team and the impact that he made after returning from a rib injury in March.
"It's unfortunate," he said. "He's a great guy. He's the heart and soul of this team. When he came back, just that little bit, his voice, his presence in the room, he was great. He was saying the right things. He was keeping it honest in here. He was playing the right way and motivating the guys.
"And then we lose him and it hurt. We were starting to make changes even thought we were still out [of the playoffs] … He stepped up in a huge way and to see this happen to him, it's unfortunate."
Foligno leaves with injury
Marcus Foligno sustained a knee injury in the second period and, though he did come back to finish that period, he did not play in the third. Bylsma characterized the injury as a bruise but had no further update.
Awards for the 2016-17 season as voted by the players were announced throughout the game. The recipients were:
Ryan O'Reilly, Most Valuable Player - O'Reilly wins the award for the second straight year despite having been limited to 70 games due to injury. He's scored 20 goals for the second straight season and for the third time in his career while continuing to serve as the all-situations type of player that he was in his first season as a Sabre.
Entering the game on Wednesday, O'Reilly's average ice time of 21:34 led all NHL forwards and his average shorthanded ice time of 2:20 ranked 10th. He also averaged 2:58 as the quarterback of a power play that's been ranked atop the League for much of the season and his 1,001 faceoff wins ranked third in the NHL.
"Just look at the way he plays every night," Ennis said. "He works hard, he battles. Playing as many minutes as he does every single night, it's a testament to him because that's difficult to do on the body. It's hard.
"It's a hard thing to be playing that many minutes every night and be counted on to take draws every night and penalty kill and blocked shots and do all the little things. He earns everything and continues to do that."
Evan Rodrigues, Rookie of the Year - Rodrigues has played 27 games this season, but he's established himself as a regular in the lineup since being recalled in February. The undrafted rookie has four goals and two assists in that span while averaging 12:56 of ice time entering Wednesday.
In the meantime, Rodrigues has earned more and more responsibility. Lately, he's also been a regular both on the power play and the penalty kill.
Jake McCabe, Unsung Hero - McCabe has taken on more responsibility in his second NHL season, averaging 20:45 of ice time and often manning Buffalo's top defensive pair alongside Rasmus Ristolainen. He's also scored three goals and 17 assists in 74 games.
A fun stat on McCabe: According to puckalytics.com, he's been on the ice for 46.02 percent of Buffalo's 5-on-5 goals in games he's played this season. That number not only leads the Sabres, it also ranks 16th in the NHL.
Zach Bogosian, Sabres Foundation Man of the Year - Bogosian made his mark by establishing The BOGO Bunch Foundation with the mission to "create a family atmosphere in the lives of those directly and indirectly affected by cancer."
In December he introduced "Bogo Juice" at The Healthy Scratch and in January he held his "Casino for a Cause" event, both to raise funds for his foundation.
Video: Bogosians donate to charity
The Sabres will conclude the season with a two-game road trip in Florida, beginning when they visit the Panthers on Saturday night. It will be the fourth and final matchup between the two teams this season. Buffalo is 2-0-1 through the first three meetings, including a 4-2 win at home on March 27.
Coverage on Saturday begins at 6:30 p.m. with the Tops Pregame Show on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops at 7 p.m.