Even after having lost their most relied-upon defenseman early in the first period and then allowing a Sidney Crosby goal that will live on the highlight reel, the Buffalo Sabres still found themselves in a 1-1 tie with less than six minutes to play in their game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday.
But, for as long as the game had remained competitive, it unraveled just as quickly. Nick Bonino picked the puck up off a broken play and scored to give Pittsburgh the lead with 5:29 remaining, and then an own-goal off the stick of Zemgus Girgensons capped the scoring in a 3-1 Penguins win.
Beating the Penguins is a tall task on any night, but it was made even taller once Rasmus Ristolainen was ejected after a mere 8:46 had passed in the contest. The Sabres defenseman received a five-minute major for interference in addition to a game misconduct for an open-ice hit against forward Jake Guentzel.
Ristolainen was skating backward toward the wall when he knocked Guentzel, who did not have the puck, down hard to the ice. Guentzel did not return and was diagnosed with a concussion.
"I don't like the fact that he got ejected," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "I think it's an unfortunate play. He's stepping up on Jake Guentzel I believe and the puck that is coming to Guentzel is stopped by Zemgus and Guentzel's unsuspecting at that point in time. Rasmus is committed to the hit and it's an unfortunate hit … I didn't like to see him leave the game."
Video: BYLSMA: Postgame
"I saw it," Sabres goalie Robin Lehner said. "I hope their guy is OK. I don't think it was any bad intention on Risto's part, I think he's going into a crowded area and unfortunately he hits him."
The Sabres entered the night having gone 11-for-12 on the penalty kill over the last five games, and they carried that monetum into killing the five-minute power play, allowing just two shots in the process. In fact, the Sabres ended the period tied 13-13 in the shot column in spite of having been shorthanded.
They also trailed 1-0 in the goal column, however, due to Crosby's marker with 8.2 seconds left on the clock. With Girgensons in the box for hooking, Crosby split all four Buffalo defenders as he skated over the blue line and toward the net, and then - with one hand on his stick, reaching out far - he flicked the puck in off his backhand past Lehner's glove.
"He had a ton of speed going through the middle of the ice and kind of rolled through the seam. It's something that he's done many times before," said Bylsma, who coached Crosby for six seasons with Pittsburgh. "Squeaks his way in there and it's a pretty amazing shot."
"The way we kill, you're expecting him to kick that out," said Zach Bogosian, who was one of the four penalty killers on the ice. "He's a world-class player, I mean he picked the top corner with one hand. That's pretty impressive from him."
Lehner maintained that any goalie would've expected Crosby to bring the puck back to his forehand in that situation.
"That's what I thought," he said. "There's probably one or maybe two guys in the League that can score a goal like that."
With Crosby's goal, the Sabres were tasked with coming from behind despite only having five defensemen, two of whom had just been recalled on Monday morning. Bylsma thought his team actually taxed their defensemen more in the second period, when they were outshot 12-6.
By the end of the game, Bogosian had skated a career-high 33:29, while three other defensemen played 20 minutes or more. Brady Austin, playing only his second NHL game, came up just short at 19:00.
"That's a lot of minutes for those guys to be logging against a good team," Bylsma said.
The thing is, the Sabres did still manage to come back. Lehner was excellent yet again, with multiple breakaway and backdoor stops mixed in among his 31 saves on the night. It opened the door for Sam Reinhart to finally tie the game 2:09 into the third period, when he caught a feed from Hudson Fasching down low and initially had his shot blocked, but stayed with the puck and scored on the rebound.
Video: PIT@BUF: Lehner rejects Sheary's wrister on breakaway
Video: PIT@BUF: Reinhart nets a wrister from a sharp angle
"I think we should've pressured them a little bit more after that goal especially and really took it to them," Reinhart said. "They're one of the best teams in the League for a reason and we've got to find a way to compete with a team like that on a nightly basis and be a team like that."
Lehner admitted that Bonino's goal was one he'd like to have back, although he didn't actually see the shot. The play was broken up in the left circle, and Bonino picked up the loose puck and beat Lehner with a near-side shot.
Less than two minutes later, Conor Sheary rushed down the ice and took a shot off Lehner's pad that bounced off the blade of Girgensons' stick and into the net.
As Bylsma said, the Sabres had fought hard and stuck with the game. But in the end, they were left feeling for the second time this month that they had let a golden opportunity slip away against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"I liked the way we came back but, I mean, we've got to have that one where we're there the whole game and we let one slip away against one of the best teams in the League," Reinhart said. "That one's hard to swallow."
The Sabres will return to action on Saturday, when they host the rival Toronto Maple Leafs at KeyBank Center. It will be the fourth of five meetings between the two teams this season. Buffalo is 1-2-0 against Toronto this season.
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 between the Sabres and Maple Leafs at 7 p.m.