For nearly a month, the Buffalo Sabres sat one victory shy of a milestone. They won their 999th regular-season game against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Jan. 11 but had gone without a win at KeyBank Center since.
Playing the finale of a five-game homestand against the New York Islanders on Thursday, the Sabres finally got the job done. Sam Reinhart led the way with three points, including the go-ahead goal with 4:14 remaining in a 4-3 Sabres victory.
Buffalo led 3-0 in the second period on goals from Jack Eichel, Evan Rodrigues and Ryan O'Reilly. The Islanders responded with goals from John Tavares, Ross Johnston and Anders Lee, the last of which tied the game just 1:03 before Reinhart scored the winner.
"It's really small details and you have to stick with it," Reinhart said. "It was a pretty ugly one but those are the ones you kind of have to find a way to win on a consistent basis in this league."
Video: Reinhart's late goal lifts Sabres to 4-3 victory
Contrary to recent losses against St. Louis and Anaheim, when the Sabres were able to pick out positives in their game despite a disappointng result, Phil Housley said his team gave up too many chances against an Islanders team that began the night averaging 3.30 goals per game, good for third in the NHL.
The Islanders outshot the Sabres 10-4 in the first period, yet it was the Sabres who jumped out to an early lead. Eichel scored on the team's first shot attempt, taken 7:41 into the contest, and Rodrigues added another goal on their second shot some five minutes later.
Video: NYI@BUF: Eichel bangs in wrister off far post
"We got a couple goals there, we feel good about ourselves even though we maybe weren't playing that well," Eichel said. "It felt like they were in our zone the first 10 minutes, but we find a way to end the period up."
The Sabres upped their play to begin the second period, added a power-play goal from O'Reilly and then had to cling to their lead. Tavares buried a loose puck behind Robin Lehner to put the Islanders on the board later in the second and Johnston scored from the slot with 12:30 remaining in the third.
Lee's tying goal, tucked between Lehner's skate and the post on a rebound off the end boards, came during an Islanders power play with Eichel in the box for hooking. At that point, the Sabres had the option to either panic or buckle down.
"I think we unfortunately sat back too much in the third period and that let them come at us with speed and skate around our zone relatively freely," Reinhart said. "We knew we had some jump earlier and we were able to find it and capitalize on it."
Reinhart had already earned two assists prior to scoring the game-winning goal, when he buried the rebound of a shot by Rodrigues from out in front of the Islanders net. His three-point night gave him 13 points (4+9) in his last 10 games, matching the total he scored in the first 44 games of his season.
Video: NYI@BUF: Reinhart tucks in a rebound down low
What changed? Reinhart insists not much; his preparation, his mindset and the way he's felt with the puck have all been the same. Housley suggested that Reinhart might have gained confidence as pucks began to find their way in the net.
If that's the case, perhaps it's fitting that the Sabres were wearing their white Winter Classic jerseys on Thursday. It was at Citi Field on New Year's Day that Reinhart broke a 16-game scoring drought with a goal on the national stage.
"I've played in some pretty big games," he said. "That one, maybe not as nerve-racking as some of the ones I've been in, but that stage was certainly the biggest. So, to be able to kind of find it there when a lot of people are watching helps the confidence.
"Throughout the season you look for a spark and that's probably the spot where you look back and see things started turning around."
Likewise, perhaps this game will serve as a spark for the Sabres on their home ice. They had played their best hockey during their three-game road trip in Western Canada, only to see their play dissipate during their homestand.
Housley acknowledged the fact that the team will need more wins to gain the trust of their fans. Getting that 1,000-win milestone out of the way is a start.
"To get a win in front of the home crowd is important," Eichel said. "[We've] got to keep people coming to games. We've got to start winning here, we've got to start making this a tougher place to play."
Rodrigues was making his debut on a line with Eichel and Reinhart after playing primarily at center this season. Rodrigues and Eichel were linemates at Boston College during the 2014-15 season, but they had a brief experience with Reinhart as their third linemate back in 2015 as well.
"We played a little bit together in development camp too, us three," Rodrigues said. "They're easy to play with and I thought we played a pretty good game."
The line was on the ice for all three of Buffalo's even-strength goals. Eichel's goal came on a perfect shot from the right faceoff circle, placed across the body of Islanders goalie Jaroslav Halak. The next two goals came as the result of their presence at the net front, an area Housley has been imploring his team to attack more as of late.
Rodrigues was stationed near Halak when Marco Scandella took a hard shot from the point that caromed off the end boards in the first period. The puck slid back between Halak's pads to Rodrigues' stick in the slot, and he was able to bury it.
Video: NYI@BUF: Rodrigues tucks home wrister past Halak
The goal was his first since scoring twice in St. Louis on Dec. 10, a span of 22 games.
"It's huge," Rodrigues said. "I went into this game just making sure I kept things simple, won my 1-on-1 battles, made the right, simple plays. I think I was rewarded for that."
Another for the power play
The Sabres entered the night leading the NHL with 12 power-play goals since Jan. 7, and they added to that total when O'Reilly scored 7:18 into the second period. Rasmus Ristolainen took a shot from the point, Reinhart set the screen down low and O'Reilly earned the tally with a deflection.
Video: NYI@BUF: O'Reilly tips Ristolainen's shot past Halak
The goal was O'Reilly's ninth on the power play this season, tying him for fifth in the NHL.
Nelson steps up
Casey Nelson was expected to carry a heavier load in the absence of Jake McCabe, out after undergoing surgery on his thumb. Nelson skated a career-high 21:47, handled himself well against the likes of New York's John Tavares and recorded his second assist in as many games with the breakout pass leading to Eichel's goal.
"I thought he was one of our better defensemen," Housley said. "I thought he had really good stick detail defending, moved the puck well. He just came in and kept the game simple. There's nothing flashy, really, about his game but he gets the job done."
The Sabres will head to Boston to play the Bruins on Saturday night. Coverage on MSG-B begins at 6:30 p.m., or you can listen live on WGR 550. Puck drop is set for just after 7.
After that, the team will return home for a 7 o'clock puck drop against the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday. Family Packs - which include four 300-Level tickets, four hot dogs, four sodas and four popcorns - are available here.