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by Chris Ryndak / Buffalo Sabres

You could call it a Festivus Miracle. Zemgus Girgensons called it the result of hard work.

The flu-ravaged Buffalo Sabres started their game against the Phoenix Coyotes on Monday with only 16 skaters. They ended it with one fewer and still found a way to earn an overtime victory.

Down to 16 skaters because of illness and then another when Drew Stafford received a game misconduct for elbowing midway through the second period, it came down to a strong effort – and a little bit of luck – for the Sabres.

Defenseman Mark Pysyk scored in a most unusual way with 1:31 left in overtime to give Buffalo the 2-1 win.

Pysyk put a shot on goal that deflected high up in the air. He then tried to chip it in, but the puck fell into the back of Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith’s pants. Smith was unaware of where the puck was and backed all the way into his net, prompting the referee to signal for a goal.

“With a short bench, all the penalties we had, it didn’t seem like anything in the game was really going our way,” Girgensons said. “Now we just worked probably the hardest we worked throughout the whole season and stuck to the system. That’s why we won.”

For Pysyk, it was his first goal of the season and the second of his career. He was recalled earlier in the day with forward Johan Larsson after spending a short three-game stint with the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League.

He said he’d take the goal any way it came.

“I had a pretty good idea [it was in],” Pysyk said. “I saw it go into the back of his pants. I didn’t know if they’d call it a goal, if they could see it or not. I knew it was in the net.”

Even for a veteran goaltender like Ryan Miller, who was strong between the pipes for Buffalo with 35 saves, the game-winning goal was of a unique variety.

“I’ve seen similar things. I’ve never seen that. A little unlucky for Smith there,” Miller said. “I think he’ll be shaking his head for awhile, but these are the kinds of things that weren’t happening for us and it’s a little bit of a Christmas present for us and we’ll take it.”

The Sabres have also dealt with injuries besides the one to center Cody Hodgson. Both Kevin Porter and Cody McCormick are on injured reserve and are expected to miss some time.

Buffalo was unable to recall anyone besides Larsson and Pysyk from Rochester because the Amerks left Monday morning for Switzerland to compete in the Spengler Cup, an exhibition tournament.

“That was a gutsy performance for sure,” Sabres interim coach Ted Nolan said.

Tyler Ennis tied the game with 5:59 remaining in regulation on a pass from Girgensons after he forced a turnover at the Coyotes blue line. Martin Hanzal scored first for the Coyotes and Smith finished with 30 stops.

Buffalo knew they might be in trouble Monday morning when it came to having enough healthy bodies in the lineup. Marcus Foligno, Ville Leino, Linus Omark and Alexander Sulzer, Buffalo’s sick players, missed the morning skate and did not take pregame warmups. All ended up being scratches.

Nolan said a few other players made it through the game while feeling under the weather as well.

Buffalo dressed only 16 skaters for the first time since a 5-1 win over Quebec on Jan. 7, 1981, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

“With a short bench, all the penalties we had, it didn’t seem like anything in the game was really going our way,” Girgensons said. “Now we just worked probably the hardest we worked throughout the whole season and stuck to the system. That’s why we won.”

Buffalo started the game rolling three lines and using John Scott as an extra defenseman. That plan changed, however, when the Sabres were forced to skate with only 15 players.

With 8:44 remaining in the second period, the Sabres had to kill a five-minute major to Drew Stafford for elbowing. In the corner to Smith’s right, Stafford, facing the boards, leaned back and caught Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson in the head with his elbow. Stafford received a major penalty and a game misconduct.

Halfway through that penalty, Martin Hanzal, who scored Phoenix’s first goal, was drawn into a roughing call by Sabres captain Steve Ott, alleviating some of the pressure on Buffalo’s shorthanded unit.

Scott played 8:50 in the game on 14 shifts. He was even used in front of the net to screen Smith on Buffalo’s power play opportunities in the third period.

“It was fun. I didn’t expect to be thrown in front like that, but Ted showed a little confidence in me and I did a pretty good job. We almost had a couple goals when I was out there so it was nice. I always ask for chances like that and to finally get one was nice.”

Phoenix took the lead 19 seconds early second period lead when Hanzal deflected in a wrist shot from the point by Connor Murphy. The call on the ice was a goal and upon review, the ruling on the ice stood. Buffalo was outshot 16-3 in the game at that point.

According to a statement released by the NHL, “video review was inconclusive in determining whether Hanzal's stick was below the level of the crossbar when he deflected the puck into the Buffalo net.”

The Sabres go into the holiday break with a 4-0-1 record in their past five home games. They’ll next take on the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday at Air Canada Centre at 7:30 p.m.

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