When the Buffalo Sabres entered the dressing room for the second intermission at KeyBank Center on Thursday night, they knew that, in a way, the Colorado Avalanche was right where it wanted to be.
Buffalo had controlled the play against last-place Colorado for most of the first 40 minutes, and yet it had only materialized into a 1-0 lead. As Evander Kane explained it afterward, the Sabres figured a struggling team like the Avalanche would be glad to have hung around with a chance to pounce in the third period.
Yet, for as close as the score was, the Sabres maintain that there was little panic when they took the ice for the third.
"We had consistent pressure in their zone and I think that's what kind of helped get rid of the panic or the pressure," Kane said. "We knew we were spending a lot of time in their zone, we knew we were getting chances and eventually they were going to come."
They were right, and it was Kane who eventually scored that elusive second goal with 4:24 remaining to cap a 2-0 victory over Colorado for Buffalo's second win in a row. Robin Lehner earned his second shutout of the season (both have come in February), but the story afterward was more about the defense in front of him.
After facing 40 or more shots in three of his last four games, it took a mere 23 saves for Lehner to secure the shutout.
"It was kind of nice. I was kind of starting to get bored there in the second a little bit, but it was very nice to see," Lehner said. "We had three, four guys in the middle the whole second period. We were dumping pucks when we didn't have anything. We did a lot of things right today."
The Avalanche came into the contest already riding a four-game losing streak, another low point in a season that's been full of them for Colorado. In a sense, the struggles of their opponent only made the opportunity that much more important for the Sabres, who were looking for their first pair of back-to-back wins in February.
The Sabres answered the call with one of their most complete 60-minute efforts of the season. They possessed the puck in the offensive zone, generating 51 shot attempts, and yet were careful enough to limit Colorado to just a handful of true scoring chances.
"You can tell they've been struggling all year, you can kind of see it in their play a bit," Sabres forward Ryan O'Reilly said. "For us, with such important points, we can't get lackadaisical or deviate. We've got to do the things consistently every night to have success and I thought we did do that."
Offensively, the Sabres easily could have had more than one goal entering the third period. O'Reilly and Zach Bogosian both rang shots off the post, Kane and Sam Reinhart came just short of connecting on a 2-on-1 rush and Jack Eichel delivered a series of highlight-reel passes to create chances throughout the night.
It was Eichel who drew the penalty that put the Sabres on the power play late in the first period, on which Reinhart went on to score the team's first goal. Eichel began the play by breaking up one of Colorado's few scoring chances in the defensive zone, then sped down the ice past multiple defenders to eventually draw a holding call against Gabriel Landeskog.
The penalty set the Sabres up for 1:55 with the extra man to begin the second period. They were 0-for-2 on the power play at the time, but Reinhart was able to finally capitalize by cleaning up a rebound off of a shot from Rasmus Ristolainen.
Video: COL@BUF: Reinhart slides rebound five-hole for PPG
"For us to stick with it after the first two power plays and not get too frustrated, down on each other, I thought we had a lot of opportunities, a lot of good looks and we were able to stick with it and bury one," Reinhart said.
Kane used his speed to put the game away late in the third after Eichel forced a takeaway in the defensive zone. Evan Rodrigues pushed the puck up the ice to Kane, who pulled a move to cut between two defenders towards the slot and beat Colorado goalie Calvin Pickard between the pads.
Video: COL@BUF: Kane makes a slick move, buries wrist shot
The goal was Kane's team-leading 19th of the season, and it propelled him to 11th place in the NHL in even-strength goals (18). More importantly, it sealed a win that Sabres coach Dan Bylsma thought his team had earned with its play in all three phases of the game.
"That's how we want to play, that's how we talked about playing," Bylsma said. "That was probably the best example of it for us for 60 minutes, playing the offensive zone, grinding the team down and continually doing it shift after shift."
The Sabres did their job against a struggling team, and by doing so they pulled within three points of Toronto for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. Their next test comes against two perennial contenders in the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blacks, who they'll welcome to KeyBank Center for back-to-back games on Saturday and Sunday.
Following those two games, the Sabres will take five days off for their bye week.
"We need to go back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back," Kane said. "That's where we're at right now in terms of this point of the season. We have two tough teams coming into our building to cap it off before the break and we have to have both of those games."
Grant leaves with injury
Derek Grant completed his last shift with 3:12 remaining in the first period, after which he was forced to exit the game with a shoulder injury. Bylsma said keeping him for the remainder of the game was done for precautionary reasons and added that Grant will undergo further evaluation on Friday.
The injury to Grant did open the door for Rodrigues to skate a career-high 15:47 of ice time. He earned the assist on Kane's goal, but Bylsma said he's been impressed with the second-year pro's play all over the ice since being called up earlier this month.
"He's really shown quite a bit for a guy who is not a natural centerman," Bylsma said. "In every one of his games, he's shown his ability to play there, be responsible there, play good positionally there, manage the puck well. I mean, several times tonight he's making the play coming out of D-zone coverage through the middle of the ice to the net-front guy and still at the same time showing a bit of the offensive ability when he has the puck on his stick."
The Sabres will play back-to-back homes games before their bye week begins on Monday, beginning when they host St. Louis on Saturday afternoon. It will be the second and final matchup between the two teams this season, with the Blues having won the first meeting 4-1 on Nov. 15.
Coverage on Saturday begins at 12:30 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 Blues at 1 p.m.