Although they had just stood toe-to-toe with one of the NHL's top teams for most of 60 minutes, the positives were of little consolation to the Buffalo Sabres following a 3-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets at KeyBank Center on Sunday afternoon.
The Sabres outshot the Jets, 36-29, and played the Central Division leaders to a 1-1 tie until late in the third period. Blake Wheeler buried a backdoor feed from Josh Morrissey with 3:55 remaining to give the Jets the lead, and Mark Scheifele added an empty-net goal in the game's dying seconds.
"It's a tough one," alternate captain Kyle Okposo said. "They made a play when it mattered. That's it. I thought we outplayed them for most of the game. They had their chances, but they made a play when it mattered."
Jack Eichel scored the lone goal for the Sabres. Carter Hutton made 26 saves in his first start since Feb. 1.
Video: BUF Recap: Eichel nets lone goal in 3-1 defeat
The Sabres drew five penalties in the first two periods, which was indicative of the manner with which they attacked the game early. They generated 47 shot attempts as opposed to 21 against in the first 40 minutes.
"We were moving the puck quick and getting it up north," Sabres coach Phil Housley said. "From that point, we were on the attack. The guys did a really good job of protecting the puck down low. They were cutting back, grinding it out, making them defend. We just didn't get anything off it, but that sometimes is going to happen in a tight game."
The Sabres' power play entered the game on a 5-for-10 run since the beginning of February, but it went 0-for-5 despite generating nine shots against Winnipeg goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. Eichel's goal came in the seconds after their fourth power play had expired.
The Jets opened the scoring at 3:01 in the second period, when Andrew Copp beat Hutton on a shorthanded breakaway. Eichel utilized a Sam Reinhart screen to beat Hellebuyck at 12:01, marking his career-high 43rd even-strength point of the season (14+29).
Video: WPG@BUF: Eichel snaps heavy wrister past Hellebuyck
Both goalies made big saves to keep it a low-scoring game. Before Copp put the Jets on the board, Hutton stopped Adam Lowry on a shorthanded breakaway in the first period. Hellebuyck made 35 saves, including a one-time stop on Jason Pominville with the game tied late in the second.
"We had some chances," Hutton said. "I thought [Hellebuyck] was seeing the puck well. He's a pretty big goalie, you know what I mean? I think you've got to get to the net and get rebounds and get other chances.
"I thought he was really good first shot, and then it was just that secondary stuff he did a good job on. A couple timely saves. It's just a good hockey game. It's obviously tough to be on the losing end of it."
Video: WPG@BUF: Hutton stymies Sabres' shorthanded chances
Wheeler's deciding goal came at the end of a long shift in the Buffalo zone, one that kept Okposo on the ice for 1:55 and Rasmus Dahlin on for 1:43.
The Sabres kept inside position and stuck with their men while the Jets cycled through the zone, until a Scheifele screen on Okposo gave Morrissey just enough breathing room to pinch down low and hit Wheeler with a crossing pass.
"Yeah, I did [get screened], but I don't know," Okposo said. "I still thought I was there. I don't know. I've got to find a way to get around that guy."
"I thought we defended well, we kept them to the outside," Eichel added. "They were cycling well, give them credit. They run a little high pick there, Morrissey kind of gets free and made a nice play."
The loss snaps a three-game point streak for the Sabres. While there will be positives to take from the game, Eichel echoed the thoughts of his coach and teammates in saying that the result was what mattered on Sunday.
"I think I've said this a few times before, but I don't know how many times you can take the moral victory anymore," Eichel said. "We're 55 games into the year; how many times can we say, 'Oh we played well but we didn't get any points.'
"Other teams are getting points, moving up the standings and we're not. I think the moral victories are a thing of the past at this point. We don't get any points and they win the game. Back at it Tuesday night."
Dahlin keeps climbing
Dahlin tallied his 31st point with the secondary assist on Eichel's goal, tying him with Jim Benning and Doug Bodger for third-most ever recorded by an NHL defenseman before his 19th birthday. Only Housley (57) and Bobby Orr (38) tallied more as 18-year-old defensemen.
The Sabres have two games left on their season-long homestand, which continues against the New York Islanders on Tuesday night. Coverage on MSG-B begins at 6:30 p.m. with the GMC Game Night pregame show, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops at 7.