As the clock ticked down, Colorado Avalanche goalie Jeremy Smith sweated out his first NHL win Saturday night.
After trimming an early three-goal deficit to one, the Buffalo Sabres made a late push to tie the game. But then Gabriel Landeskog took off on a breakaway and scored his second goal of the night into an empty net with 41 seconds remaining, sealing a 5-3 victory for Smith and the struggling Avalanche.
Smith, who finished with 34 saves, watched intently as Landeskog sped down the ice in the final minute.
“When I saw him get the puck, he’s a fast skater, so it was like, I hope he skates,” Smith said. “Just a sigh of relief.”
Buffalo came back from its bye week and squandered a chance to make up ground in the Eastern Conference standings. The Sabres are seven points behind Toronto for third place in the Atlantic Division and six back of Boston for the second wild card.
“We have 21 (games) left now,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “We know we have to win 15 of them to get back into this thing, to get to a mark where we may be able to get in the playoffs.
“This is a missed opportunity in getting those two points.”
Landeskog, Mikhail Grigorenko and Tyson Barrie scored in the first 14:24 for Colorado, which hadn’t scored three goals in a game since Feb. 7. Blake Comeau added another in the second period before Landeskog’s empty netter.
Colorado’s rare victory — its second in 10 games — also came with the return of defenseman Erik Johnson, who had been out of the lineup since breaking his leg on Dec. 3. He played 17:35 and had an assist.
“I missed three months and that’s a long time,” Johnson said. “It’ll get better for sure, but definitely some rust to work off.”
Sam Reinhart, Marcus Foligno and Evan Rodrigues scored for Buffalo, which hasn’t won in Denver since Dec. 4, 2005. Robin Lehner stopped 25 shots.
Colorado took advantage of a sluggish start by Buffalo, which hadn’t played since Sunday.
Landeskog deflected Mark Barberio’s shot from the blue line 2:06 into the first period, then Grigorenko and Barrie added to the lead with goals in a span of 1:42 to make it 3-0.
The Sabres closed the deficit to 3-2 with goals from Reinhart, who missed the last two games before the bye with an illness, and Foligno.
Comeau pushed Colorado’s lead back to 4-2 at 16:07 of the second before Rodrigues answered 1:33 later to again make it a one-goal game.
But the Sabres were unable to beat Smith in the third.
“No one said this was going to be easy,” Landeskog said. “This is a good team fighting for the playoffs. Even going up 3-0 in the first wasn’t going to stop these guys. It got close, even a little too close for us, but I think this one might even feel better to win this way rather than win 3 or 4 to nothing.”