If the season-long struggles of the Colorado Avalanche made the win on Thursday for the Buffalo Sabres any less convincing, then their test against a St. Louis team that rode a six-game winning streak into town on Saturday afternoon was an opportunity for Buffalo to really show what it's made of.
The Sabres overcame a slow first few minutes and then thrived in two areas that have been their Achilles heels all season - the second period and the penalty kill - to grind out a 3-2 victory over the Blues, extending their own winning streak to three games.
Nicholas Baptiste and Evander Kane each tallied a goal and an assist for Buffalo, while Ryan O'Reilly notched the eventual game-winning goal during a 5-on-3 power play late in the second period.
The first few minutes of the game had it looking like it might've been a long afternoon for the Sabres. Vladimir Tarasenko opened the scoring a mere 1:31 into the contest after a delayed call, and the Blues pinned the Sabres in their own zone for the next few shifts after that.
"That could've killed our momentum," Kane said. "But we stuck with it, we stayed confident."
Ironically, the play that got the Sabres back into the game came from the guy who woke up thinking he'd be playing in Rochester. Baptiste said he got word around 9 a.m. that he'd been recalled to replace Sam Reinhart, who woke up with the flu. He drove from Rochester to Buffalo, and was placed on one of the Sabres' top lines alongside Kane and Jack Eichel.
The quality that sticks out immediately when looking at that trio is the speed that each of those three players possess, and it was that speed that led to Baptiste's game-tying goal midway through the first period. Eichel burned three defenders - two at one blue line and another at the next - and deked to create room as he darted toward the slot.
The extra space allowed Eichel to tap a backhand pass to an oncoming Baptiste, who scored his third goal of the season between the pads of St. Louis goalie Jake Allen.
Video: STL@BUF: Baptiste slips home a nifty backhander
"I think we had a lot of speed on our line," Baptiste said. "Jack's so good with the puck, you've got to get open for him. On that play when we scored, he cut to the middle and I was able to find a hole. He put the puck on my tape and it was just a great play."
"He's a guy that can skate, a guy that has some good finish and some good offensive instinct and he knows how to put the puck in the net," Kane said of Baptiste. "That was pretty much on display for his first goal there, kind of making a nice move and seeking one through the goalie."
The Sabres turned their game around after Baptiste's goal, nearly taking the lead when Kane rang a shot off the post on a 2-on-1 rush with Eichel in the second period and then actually taking the lead when Kane tipped a Zach Bogosian shot past Allen.
Video: STL@BUF: Kane tips home Bogosian's wrister
Dan Bylsma has said that the amount of penalties the Sabres draw is an indication of how they're playing. On Saturday, they drew six, including two that gave them a 45-second 5-on-3 advantage at the end of the second period. O'Reilly capitalized with a far-side shot from the right of the net to extend Buffalo's lead with 31.3 seconds on the clock.
Video: STL@BUF: O'Reilly buries a power-play goal
That lead held through most of the third period, and the game looked all but over when Eichel drew a holding call against Kevin Shattenkirk to give Buffalo its sixth power play with less than six minutes remaining. Then Scottie Upshall intercepted a pass and sped to beat Lehner on a shorthanded breakaway - just the first shorthanded goal scored by the Blues all season and the second allowed by the Sabres - to bring the Blues within one.
If the people at KeyBank Center were biting their nails after Upshall's goal, they might have taken off an entire finger when Lehner was called for tripping Alexander Steen with 1:12 remaining. Lehner disagreed with the call - he said Steen had skated through his crease, a claim supported by video evidence - but it gave the Blues a 6-on-4 advantage once they pulled Allen nonetheless.
The Sabres came up with some key blocks on the ensuing penalty kill, however, and a broken stick on a Tarasenko shot all but ended the Blues' comeback hopes. Lehner exhaled with a fist pump at the sound of the final horn.
"It wasn't the perfect third, but when you win the game that's all you can ask for," O'Reilly said.
While their competitors do hold games in hand, the win brought the Sabres within one point of the second wild card berth in the Eastern Conference at game's end. (Toronto, currently in that spot, will have a chance to restore their three-point lead on Saturday night.)
"It's good. We want to keep climbing but we don't want to be looking at that board too much. We just want to keep looking toward the next game," O'Reilly said. "We've got Chicago coming in and, again, that's a very skilled team that has found ways to win games and it's not going to be easy. That's our focus now.
"We're not satisfied at all. We're happy to get the points, but we're going to do a bit of reflection, adjust a couple things and get ready."
Notes and numbers
Will Kane ever stop scoring? His goal was his 20th of the season, all of which have come since Dec. 3. He only scored 20 goals in all of last season, and that was in 61 games. Perhaps more impressively, 19 of his goals have been at even-strength, a category in which he leads the NHL over that span.
Kane said the numbers don't matter, but his coach expounded on his recent stretch for him.
"It's hard to score in this League, it's hard to get even strength goals in this League and he's leading the League since Dec. 1 in doing so," Bylsma said. "It hasn't been just him and his shot coming down the wing, he's got it a lot of different ways and a lot of tough ways."
A few other players currently on hot streaks: Eichel has five goals and 12 assists for 17 points in his last 17 games, O'Reilly has three goals and four assists for seven points in seven games, and Lehner now has a .935 save percentage in 15 games since the beginning of January.
Ristolainen, meanwhile, earned the 100th point of his NHL career on O'Reilly's goal.
Update on Reinhart
Bylsma didn't rule out the possibility of Reinhart returning to the lineup against Chicago on Sunday, but he also couldn't full commit to it.
"I hope that will be the case but I don't know," he said. "He kind of came down this morning with the flu, being sick, and we're doing everything we can to try and get him ready for the game tomorrow so we'll see."
The Sabres will play one last game before taking off for their bye week when they host the Chicago Blackhawks at KeyBank Center on Sunday evening. Chicago won the first matchup between the two teams 4-3 in overtime on Jan. 5.
The game can be seen on NBCSN, with puck drop set for 6 p.m.