No lead is safe when your opponent is the reigning Stanley Cup champion or the highest-scoring team in the NHL, or, in the case of the Pittsburgh Penguins, both. The Buffalo Sabres knew as much when they carried a three-goal lead into the first intermission of their game in Pittsburgh on Sunday evening.
What followed, in the eyes of the Sabres players, were two periods that continued the trend set in recent losses to Arizona and Nashville. Buffalo never scored again, while the Penguins chipped away until Conor Sheary scored the go-ahead goal of a 4-3 victory with 2:56 remaining.
"Play aggressive in the first and then sit back and let them take it to us in the second and third," Sabres forward Jack Eichel said. "It's the tale of every game that we've played in the last few. Nothing changes and we blow another lead."
Video: BUF Recap: Sabres lose on late goal from Sheary
Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly and Brian Gionta each scored goals for the Sabres during a first period in which they had three power plays and outshot the Penguins 21-13. It still wasn't the perfect period by any means; there were stretches where Pittsburgh hemmed the Sabres in their own zone and Anders Nilsson had to come up big.
Those types of stretches, defenseman Jake McCabe said, were bound to happen. The Sabres expected them against a team as skilled as the Penguins, just like they expected Pittsburgh would eventually earn its own power plays and find the back of the net.
They did both of those things in the second peirod. Justin Schultz put the Penguins on the board with a goal on the rush, while Evgeni Malkin scored with a one-time shot on the power play later in the period to make it a one-goal game.
"That's going to happen," McCabe said. "It's a world-class player making a world-class shot. That stuff happens. We get to the second period and its 3-2 going into the third that's a great spot on the road obviously.
" ... Stuff like that happens in a game and you've got to respond accordingly, which we didn't."
The Sabres weathered the storm a bit more in the third period - they killed off two penalties - but allowed the Penguins to finally tie the game on a high deflection off the stick of Jake Guentzel with 3:46 remaining. The goal was reviewed to see if Guentzel had scored with a high stick, but the call stood.
"The high-sticking rule as it is is hard to overturn," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "So, whether I think it's a high stick or not, I know it's' rarely one that's overturned."
Sheary's goal, scored at the back door after receiving a slap pass from Schultz at the blue line, followed less than a minute later.
All the while, the Sabres had gotten their share of chances to get that elusive fourth goal. They ended the first period on a power play that saw them earn multiple scoring chances, Evander Kane had a breakaway attempt almost immediately after Schultz's goal in the second period, and Buffalo got one last chance with the extra man when Schultz was called for a delay of game with 1:51 remaining in the third.
But still, with all that being said, Eichel felt his team didn't push hard enough.
"We gave them way too much," he said. "A team like that, you can't sit back and let them just pick the puck up in their zone and skate at you. That's what we did. We just backed up on [Nilsson]. We were lucky to get as far as we did. We played a good first period, got away from what we did. That's the tale of the story and it seems like it's kind of a reoccurring theme right now with us. "
Nilsson, who made a season-high 46 saves when he first faced the Penguins in November, stopped 41 shots and was excellent for much of the night. He made multiple saves from point-blank range and was the reason the Sabres came out of the first period with a 3-0 lead in the first place.
Video: BUF@PIT: Nilsson uses his body to reject Crosby
"He stood on his head the entire game," Eichel said. "It could've easily been a 3-3 game after the first and it could've easily been 3-3 after the second. They could've been up after the second. You can't put him at fault at all, he made save after save after save."
"I felt good throughout the whole game," Nilsson said. "I felt calm, I felt patient, felt like I saw the puck good. It's tough to let in four goals and still feel like you've played a pretty good game."
Pittsburgh started Matt Murray in net, but pulled him after allowing three goals on 21 shots in the first. Marc-Andre Fleury played the entirety of the second and third periods and was perfect on 28 save attempts.
"I think a lot of times a goaltending change infuses some energy for a team," Bylsma said. "It certainly did for them."
A win in Pittsburgh would've put the Sabres within three points of the New York Islanders, who lost to Calgary on Sunday, in the wild card race. Instead, their uphill battle becomes a bit steeper now with just 16 games remaining.
"We've had a few of these lately and each one's a bigger blow to where we're at in the standings and what we need to do to get some points here," Bylsma said. "We're going to have to come off this one and respond against Philly when they come in on Tuesday."
Streaks stay alive for Eichel, O'Reilly
Eichel's goal in the first period extended his career-best point streak to 10 games, the longest active streak in the NHL. Eichel has three goals and 10 assists during that span, and his 21 points (4+17) since Feb. 1 leads the League.
Video: BUF@PIT: Foligno, Eichel combine for nifty goal
O'Reilly, meanwhile, extended his goal-scoring streak to three games, and he has six points (3+3) overall in his last four contests.
Video: BUF@PIT: O'Reilly finishes tic-tac-toe passing play
The Sabres will return home to host the Philadelphia Flyers, whom they trail by two points in the standings, at KeyBank Center on Tuesday night. It will be the third and final meeting between the two teams this season. Buffalo went 1-0-1 in the first two contests.
The game on Tuesday will be nationally televised on NBCSN, with puck drop set for 7:30 p.m.