It took the Buffalo Sabres about 50 minutes to take Thursday's game against the Montreal Canadiens seriously, but once they did so they weren't to be denied victory.
Thomas Vanek scored two straight goals to help Buffalo tie the game at 4-4 and send it into overtime. But the entire team contributed to those two scores, showing a grit that's been missing much of the season.
Vanek's first goal came on the power play, but his goal was the payoff resulting from the hard work of several others. Marcus Foligno, who ended the night with three assists, dug around the boards to eventually feed the puck to the front of the net. Tyler Ennis was pummeled but got off a shot on Peter Budaj. The rebound bounced to Vanek at the side of the net, and he easily flicked a backhand shot in to halve the deficit.
Then on the game-tying goal, it was as though the Sabres simply decided they'd no longer be denied. Steve Ott, Ennis and Vanek were in front of the net, and Foligno rushed in with the puck. All four were beaten up by Montreal defenders before Vanek – from the ice – shoveled the puck between Budaj's pads.
"It’s just one of those things where you know you have time and you know you want to rush it, so I got a nice pass from the defense in the middle and had space, gave it to (Jason) Pominville out wide and he dished it back to me, and I was able to get a little step on the defense," Foligno said. "In those situations, you have to go to the front of the net and hopefully get an opportunity … Just stuff like that, you just got to hold onto it for that last second and just throw it in the crease and just get shots on net."
The Sabres have been playing better the past couple games, but with six losses in the seven games leading up to Thursday, they had little to show for it. Mistakes and blown opportunities such as Buffalo's two-man advantage in the second period Thursday left them wondering what else could go wrong.
That includes in net. The goaltending has been suspect much of the season – Buffalo's surrendered at least four goals in six straight games now and has allowed a league-worst 41 goals in 11 games – but a Ryan Miller breakaway save near the end of the second period seemed to give Buffalo just enough spark to overcome yet another lead by the opposition. Miller also made two shootout saves to preserve the win.
"You have to start somewhere," Ruff said of Miller. "Big saves change the swing of a game … he came up when we needed him to in the shootout."
Buffalo definitely got a spark out of how it closed Thursday's game. And although they're in 14th place in the standings, the Sabres are only two points from being in seventh in the Eastern Conference. Buffalo plays a weak Islanders team Saturday and Northeast Division-leading Boston on Sunday – whom the Sabrs beat 7-4 in Boston last week. So, for all its ills, Buffalo is still in position to right the ship.
But the leak won't cease without way more concentration and efforts like what the Sabres got at the end of the game Thursday.
"Through a portion, I could have had two or three and thought to myself, 'Maybe it’s just one of those nights,' " Vanek said. "But just keep going, and in the end I got rewarded and the team got two points that we really needed."
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