One of the learning points that Phil Housley has repeated as being essential to the Buffalo Sabres turning their season around is the ability to not crack under pressure. Too often this season the Sabres have found themselves in close games, and deviated from their game plan as a result.
Housley mentioned that commitment to the game plan as a key going into Buffalo's game against the Washington Capitals on Tuesday. Sure enough, the Sabres found themselves in a 1-1 tie entering the third period.
On this occasion, the Sabres didn't deviate. They left KeyBank Center with a 3-1 win to show for it.
"It was just making the right decisions, keeping things simple, not taking things into our own hands and sticking to the game plan," Housley said. "You could see when they make the choices and those decisions, it just seems things work out in your favor."
Video: Condensed Game: Capitals @ Sabres
Benoit Pouliot scored the game-winning goal at the 3:22 mark of the third period and Evander Kane scored his second goal of the night into an empty net to seal the victory with 20 seconds remaining.
Robin Lehner made 24 saves in net for Buffalo.
The Sabres got the start they wanted against a Capitals team playing their second game in as many nights, controlling the play for most of the first period and gaining a 15-4 advantage in the shot column in the process.
But for of all their efforts in the period, the Sabres entered the first intermission in a scoreless tie.
"I thought we came out with authority - and that's a really god hockey team - and we didn't get anything for it," Housley said. "Which was important to realize that you just stay the course … The guys stuck to it and they stayed the course and didn't crack."
Evander Kane finally put the Sabres on the board after 2:39 had passed in the second period, the product of a drawn-up faceoff play by Kane and linemates Jack Eichel and Jason Pominville.
Eichel won the offensive-zone faceoff and raced to retrieve the puck down low, where he was able to win a battle and make a quick feed to Kane out in front.
Video: WSH@BUF: Kane buries Eichel's behind-the-net pass
The Capitals tied the game on Alexander Ovechkin's goal later in the period, though, and once again it felt as though the Sabres were tied in a game they deserved to be winning. Eichel recalled a similar game, against San Jose on Oct. 28, when a third-period tie turned into a regulation loss.
"Tonight we're on the other side of it and it's nice to be there," Eichel said. "We should learn from it. We stuck to our game plan for 60 minutes and didn't deviate from the plan."
It was a strong individual effort from Pouliot that gave the Sabres their final lead. Pouliot skated end-to-end with the puck and into the heart of the Washington defense. As he rushed toward the net, he cut to the slot and used defenseman Brooks Orpik as a screen to take his shot on Philipp Grubauer.
Video: WSH@BUF: Pouliot goes end-to-end to beat Grubauer
"At first I kind of wanted to go around him or just kind of toe drag him," Pouliot said. "Once I pulled it inside I thought I had a pretty good lane to shoot and it ended up good."
The Sabres were able to limit Washington's chances the rest of the way, but they weren't quite able to breathe until Kane provided the extra cushion with his empty-net goal, scored after Eichel had lost the puck in the neutral zone.
The victory improved Buffalo's record to 5-8-2 this season. If the Sabres have their way, it should also serve as a template to earn more wins going forward.
"They definitely came with some pushes in the second period there and in the third, but we stuck with it," Kane said. "We weathered the storm and we pushed back and we played solid defensively. We got some timely goals, especially Benny's there in the third.
"That's how you win."
McCabe provides a spark
Eichel said the Sabres played with an added passion on Tuesday, and there was no greater evidence than Jake McCabe's fight against Tom Wilson in the second period. The fight came after Wilson hit Sam Reinhart into the boards from behind.
"Even after he got out of the box, the guys appreciated that," Housley said. "When somebody runs your teammate, to be able to step up against a pretty tough opponent says a lot about Jake McCabe."
Pouliot stays hot
Pouliot's goal marked his fifth of the season, all of which have been scored in his last seven games. Pouliot said he's often dealt with slow starts to seasons, but he's found chemistry on a line with Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo as of late.
"We got scored on a few times the last few games but we always come back with a goal or we always come back with a strong shift that's going to get us back in the game," he said. "Things have been working out. We're communicating, the chemistry's there, so it's positive."
Pouliot came to Buffalo looking for a fresh start after an admittedly tough season in Edmonton, during which he scored just eight goals in 67 games. He's already nearly matched that total in just 15 games this season.
"He's taken advantage of the opportunity," Housley said. "He's been really consistent since he's been moved up [to O'Reilly's line] and he's contributed offensively, which is nice to see because we've got to try to spread the scoring out a little bit."
Eichel wants to shoot more
Eichel thinks of himself as a playmaker more than a goal scorer, and it's common to see him look to pass and set up a teammate rather than take a shot himself when presented with an odd-man rush. After missing a few chances Tuesday, Eichel seemed to have a change in philosophy.
"I thought I had some chances," Eichel said. "I think I need to learn how to shoot the puck. Our fans are getting a little sick of me trying to pass it, so I'll take a look at that and try to learn from it."
Eichel led the NHL with 4.1 shots per game last season, but that mark is down to 3.0 per game this season.
"I think one thing that Jack does really well is he's a very confident person with the puck," Housley said. "He handles it really well and creates his own opportunities and chances and for his linemates. I'd like to see him shoot more, especially in the 2-on-1s.
"He's got a terrific shot. He's an unselfish player in that regard but sometimes you'd like to see him shoot more."
The Sabres will conclude their two-game homestand against the Florida Panthers on Friday night. It will be Military Appreciation Night at KeyBank Center, and the first 15,000 fans in attendance will receive a Sabres-themed military dog tag.
All active, reserve, National Guard and retired military personnel the opportunity to purchase tickets in the Buffalo Creek 300 Level for $25. These tickets can be ordered here at Sabres.com/Military.
More information can be found here.
If you can't make it to the game, coverage on MSG-B begins at 6:30 p.m. with GMC Gamenight or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops at 7 p.m.