GLENDALE, Ariz. — On their heels and down a man early in the third period, the Sabres apparently had the Phoenix Coyotes right where they wanted them.
Buffalo rookie Zemgus Girgensons stunned the Coyotes and goaltender Thomas Greiss with a short-handed goal two minutes into the final period Thursday, breaking a 2-2 tie and lifting the Sabres to a 3-2 victory.
“Z was in the right place at the right time,” Buffalo coach Ted Nolan said. “With the energy he plays with all the time, it’s good to see him get one.”
The Sabres won for the second time in nine games by taking advantage of Keith Yandle, the Coyotes’ high-scoring defenseman who was left off the U.S. Olympic team for his defensive lapses. He had a big one in Jobing.com Arena.
With Cody Hodgson in the box for the third time after getting hemmed in his zone, the Sabres applied short-handed pressure with a shot by Brian Flynn. The rebound went to Yandle, who thought he had room to skate. Instead, Girgensons knocked the puck off his stick and through the legs of an unsuspecting Greiss.
“He had his back to the play,” Girgensons said of Yandle, “so I saw the opportunity to poke the puck. Luckily, it went five-hole.
“No one saw that coming.”
The large number of Buffalo backers in the announced crowd of 13,130 let out a roar, then held their breath as Ryan Miller finished off the victory with 38 saves. The goaltender improved to 8-3-3 in his last 14 decisions.
It wasn’t all good news. Matt Moulson left the game in the third period after a slash or cross-check to his arm. The left winger was still in serious pain well after the game ended.
“He got whacked pretty good, so we’ll see how it is,” said Nolan, who expects to know more today. “We’ll cross our fingers and hope it’s good.”
The win came after a slow start. The Sabres’ hotel in Glendale was a slap shot away from the rink. With one brief exception, they may as well have stayed there for the first period.
Phoenix opened with a 7-1 shot edge on its way to a season-high 21 in the opening 20 minutes. Miller stopped the first 17, but the Coyotes buried two in 18 seconds to offset an early goal by Tyler Ennis.
“It looked like a different team to me in the second and third,” Miller said. “It was the kind of team we’ve been trying to be for a while. Guys worked hard for it. It just took awhile to get going.”
With the team slogan “Hungrier than Ever” circling the scoreboard, Phoenix feasted on two rebounds to turn their shot advantage into a lead in the final 1:30 of the first.
“We knew we had to play better, and it was good to see the guys have that kind of response to a period like that,” Miller said. “The game doesn’t just end if you get down. You have to respond. I can’t say enough good things about how we started to play hockey there in the second and third.”
The flurry in a town that hit 78 degrees prevented the Sabres from ending the period with an unlikely lead. Ennis put outshot Buffalo on the board first with 6:08 gone. Girgensons carried the puck deep to set up a shot by Moulson, and Ennis took care of the rebound for his 12th goal.
The half of the crowd wearing blue and gold got to cheer again with 6:38 gone in the second as the Sabres tied the game, 2-2.
The power-play goal came during a man-advantage that nearly failed to produce a shot. With Paul Bissonnette ready to exit the box, Alex Sulzer took a point shot. Ville Leino crossed in front for another attempt, and the rebound stuck around the front of the crease.
Steve Ott slipped it under the arm of Greiss with three seconds left in the power play.
The Sabres, who moved to 2-4-3 in the last nine games, flew north to Denver following the game. They will visit the Colorado Avalanche at 3 p.m. Saturday.
“We just made a couple adjustments, and you have to give this team credit,” Nolan said. “They really buckled down in the third.”