Tyler Ennis and the Buffalo Sabres are beginning to separate themselves from the bottom of the Eastern Conference pack with a late-season playoff push.
A day after all but mathematically knocking the Philadelphia Flyers out of contention, the Sabres followed up with a 3-1 win over Tampa Bay on Sunday, after which Lightning coach Jon Cooper conceded his team's postseason chances.
"Well, let's be realists, we're out of it," Cooper said.
The message was far more upbeat inside the Sabres dressing room, where belief and optimism still prevail.
"Right now, we have nothing to lose," Ennis said after he opened the scoring with his first goal in 12 games. "We've got to give it everything we have and make a push."
Backup goalie Jhonas Enroth stopped 32 shots, a day after a 29-save performance in a 1-0 win over the Flyers. Jochen Hecht and Kevin Porter scored goals 4:37 apart midway through the second period to put the game away.
By improving to 8-4-2 in its past 14, the Sabres (18-19-6) suddenly find themselves alone in 10th place in the East, having jumped two spots in two days in the standings. With five games left, the Sabres moved four points behind the New York Rangers for the conference's eighth and final playoff spot.
"It's huge. Two big teams that are below us in the standings," said Porter, who has four goals after starting the season in the minors. "We are going to make this pretty interesting."
Benoit Pouliot scored for the Lightning, who dropped to 1-4-1 in their past six. Tampa Bay has particularly struggled on the road, where it's winless in four straight (0-3-1) and 1-6-1 in the last eight.
The Lightning dropped to 1-4-1 in their past six. Tampa Bay has particularly struggled on the road, where it's winless in four straight (0-3-1) and 1-6-1 in the last eight.
Playing on consecutive days following a 6-5 overtime loss at Washington, the Lightning didn't have another comeback in them after rallying from two four-goal deficits against the Capitals.
"I know we laid a lot on the line last night," Cooper said. "This was one of those games, it looked like who ever was going to score first was probably going to win the game."
That team proved to be the Sabres.
Ennis opened the scoring at 4:09 of the first period by finishing an inventive three-way passing play. It began at the right point, where Christian Ehrhoff flipped a pass between his legs through the middle to Thomas Vanek above the left post. Vanek then made a no-look pass through the crease to Ennis, who swept it in the open side.
The power-play goal was Buffalo's first in eight games, a stretch in which the team had failed to convert on 20 consecutive opportunities.
Hecht made it 2-0 slapping in a shot from the right circle that sneaked in under goalie Mathieu Garon's left arm. And Porter capped a 2-on-1 break by redirecting in Brian Flynn's pass into the crease.
Enroth stopped the first 16 shots he faced before allowing his first goal in two games, with 6:30 left in the second period. That's when Pouliot cut the Sabres' lead to 3-1 by deflecting in Eric Brewer's shot from the left point.
Enroth was otherwise sharp, particularly over the final 90 seconds after Garon was pulled for an extra attacker.
Ryan Malone batted a puck out of the air toward the net, only to have it stopped by Enroth with 1:23 left. A minute later, Enroth managed to smother a shot that was deflected in front by Richard Panik.
For Enroth, this marked only the second time in three seasons in Buffalo that he earned an opportunity to start consecutive games when starter Ryan Miller is healthy. He's not sure if he'll get a chance to make it three in a row on Wednesday, when the Sabres travel to play at Boston.
"I have no idea," said Enroth, who improved to 4-0-1 in his past seven games. "We've still got one of the world's best goalies in here, too, in Ryan. So yeah, we'll see what happens."
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