PITTSBURGH - Through two periods on Tuesday night, the Buffalo Sabres went toe-to-toe with the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions and never seemed to blink. When the Pittsburgh Penguins punched, the Sabres punched back, sometimes literally and other times by finding the back of the net.
It all added up to a 4-3 lead heading into the third period. What happened next stemmed from an overall shift in the team's mindset, at least in the opinions of the players who spoke following the game.
"First two periods I thought we tried to take it to them, third period we sat back and let them take it to us," Sabres forward Jack Eichel said. "We played scared to lose and not to win. They're a good hockey team. We knew we were going to get a hard push."
Video: BUF Recap: Sabres lose early lead, fall in OT, 5-4
Pittsburgh outshot Buffalo 13-6 in the final period and Phil Kessel scored the tying goal with 6:11 remaining, paving the way for Connor Sheary to clinch a 5-4 win for the Penguins in overtime.
Sam Reinhart led the way for the Sabres with three points (1+2). Eichel scored a goal and an assist, while Benoit Pouliot and Evander Kane also tallied goals.
Robin Lehner made 40 saves in net for Buffalo.
For a team that's still learning how to be consistent in pressure situations, moments of adversity were met head on through the first 40 minutes on Tuesday. For example: When Reinhart was leveled with an open-ice hit from Penguins defenseman Ian Cole, not only did Eichel quickly drop his gloves in response, the Sabres then went on to kill off a power play with Eichel and Kane in the box for roughing.
Another example: When Patric Hornqvist took advantage of a misplay behind the net to cut Buffalo's two-goal lead in half with 19 seconds remaining in the first period, Eichel responded with a goal of his own 16 seconds into the second.
Video: BUF@PIT: Eichel slips nifty backhand past Murray
Then, when the Penguins responded with goals from Sheary and Sidney Crosby to even the score at 3-3, Reinhart won a battle along the end boards and fed Pouliot on the power play to regain the lead with seven seconds left in the second period.
Video: BUF@PIT: Reinhart pots power-play goal off carom
"We earned that lead going into the third," Reinhart said. "There's a reason why we have it. We're playing against probably the best team in the world the last few years. We play with the mindset that we're going to go take it to them, and we play with the lead. We lose it, and we sit back too much. The more opportunities you give that team, they're going to score more times than not."
Sabres coach Phil Housley said he saw a dip in his team's play without the puck in the third period as well.
"The bottom line is we put ourselves in position to win a hockey game, going into the third period with a one goal lead," Housley said. "We've got to be able to shut teams down. Good teams, they're going to create, but we've got to rely on our play without the puck and have urgency to protect the lead and then try to take advantage of mistakes the other team makes, which we came close to."
After Kessel tied the game for the Penguins, on a one-time goal made possible by a feed from Evegni Malkin that seemed to see its way through multiple sticks as it glided across the Buffalo net, it took just 16 seconds into the overtime period for Sheary to score the winner.
Eichel explained that it was a failed switch on his behalf that left Sheary open to score on a feed from Crosby, who was stationed behind the net. Kane went down low to pick up Crosby, and Eichel was still looking for his man when Crosby delivered the pass.
"I think it was just a switch, and I didn't pick up Sheary quick enough. That's on me," Eichel said. "He made a good play. He spun off pretty quickly and made a nice pass there. I wasn't expecting it. I was trying to find my way to the front of the net."
Housley said he liked a lot of what his team was able to accomplish in the game, and for good reason. After scoring just one goal in three of their last four games, they created several chances on the rush and found the back of the net four times. Two of their goals came on the power play, giving them four in three games.
It also makes it two games in a row in which the Sabres have felt they played well enough to win, only to come away with one point to show for it.
"Were not going to give up," Lehner said. "We know what spot we're in but we also know [if we] win one, two, three, all of sudden we climb back to .500. You never know. You have to take lessons out of this."
Eichel drops the gloves
While the Sabres technically saw their streak of three straight games with a fight come to an end, we did see Eichel drop the gloves in response to Cole's hit on Reinhart in the first period. Eichel wasted no time in engaging the Pittsburgh defenseman after seeing his linemate go down, and Kane joined soon after:
"It just seemed like a pretty hard hit," Eichel said. "Sam seemed pretty vulnerable. I think that's just part of hockey. You've got to step up and try to send the message that we're not going to let our guys get liberties taken on them … We're a group in here, we win and lose together. If one of us goes down, if people try to take runs at one of us, we're all there to back him up."
"That's this group in here and that's the kind of guy he is," Reinhart added.
Kane's big start
By scoring his 10th goal of the season in the first period, Kane is officially off to the fastest start to a season in his NHL career. Kane's previous best was 2011-12, when he scored 10 goals in his first 22 games.
The goal came in a familiar fashion, with Kane and Eichel racing down the ice on a 2-on-1 rush. Eichel slowed as he skated deeper into the offensive zone, patiently waiting to find the seam with which he set up Kane for a tap-in goal.
Video: BUF@PIT: Kane pots Eichel's great feed on the rush
Kane also maintained his point-per-game pace with 18 points in as many games this season, which leads the Sabres.
The Sabres will visit Little Caesars Arena for the first time to play the Detroit Red Wings on Friday night. It will be the second meeting between the two teams this season, with the Sabres having won the first matchup 1-0 in Buffalo on Oct. 24.
Coverage on Friday begins at 7 p.m. on with GMC Gamenight on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops at 7:30.