BUFFALO - The Islanders took a good look at the 60 minutes they had just played, and the whole previous week and a half seemed a whole lot better in their eyes. Even the three losses that preceded their two wins in three road games didn't look all that bad in retrospect.
"I think the guys know we didn't get the results we wanted,'' Jack Capuano said, "but we played pretty darned well in those games.''
So what they got out of beating the last-place Sabres, 3-2, Sunday night were two points and a new grip on their confidence. When John Tavares spoke of the way the Islanders (34-18-1) held on after losing two-thirds of a 3-0 lead, he might as well have been talking about the way it felt after having lost three consecutive games before the trip: "I don't think there was any panic.''
No, there was no "sky is falling'' desperation over having lost three players to injuries in a loss to Boston Saturday night. Colin McDonald and Harry Zolnierczyk, forwards called up on an emergency basis from Bridgeport, played solid games Sunday night. "I give them a lot of credit,'' Capuano said. "They played three games in 21/2 nights.''
McDonald scored in the first period, setting the tone -- despite having learned of his call-up Saturday night, driven from Connecticut to the Long Island Marriott and caught an 8 a.m. flight out of JFK for a 5 p.m. game.
"I understand my role, the role I'm in this year. You just have to be ready,'' McDonald said after his first NHL game since Oct. 21. "These games are easy to get up for.''
He was in perfect position, skating toward the right of goalie Michal Neuvirth, to tap home Casey Cizikas' perfect centering pass at 16:19. "I know what type of guy he is, what type of player he is,'' Cizikas said. "He showed it tonight. He played unbelievable for us. He brought that extra oomph.''
Zolnierczyk gave some extra, too, in the second period as he goaded Tyler Myers into a slashing penalty that enabled Anders Lee to score a power-play goal off an end-boards carom at 10:20. When Mikhail Grabovski ripped a shot to the top left corner off a crisp feed by Travis Hamonic at 11:22, it was 3-0 and looked as if it would be a total Islanders night.
Then the Sabres scored twice within 2:24 of the same period and the score was tight. The Islanders were not. "Even though they got two goals,'' Tavares said, "I don't think they turned the tide a whole lot.''
True enough. For the game, the Sabres (16-35-3) took only 10 shots, tying a club-record low.
The Islanders' penalty-killing, a sore spot during the three-game losing streak, was a source of pride. They killed off the last one, early in the third, with a flourish: a diving sweep by Cizikas to clear the defensive zone.
And the streak, which reached three last Tuesday, seemed like ancient history.
"You've just got to keep playing,'' said Hamonic, who had two assists. "Unfortunately, it's not the first time we lost three in a row this year. We've come out of it every time.''
They left with a good feeling about where they are headed. They weren't the only ones. Sabres coach Ted Nolan, who once breathed life into the Islanders from behind their bench, said: "They're not on top of their division for no reason. They're a good team.''
Notes & quotes: Michael Grabner was placed on injured reserve with what Capuano called an upper-body injury. Cal Clutterbuck, who also had to leave Saturday night's game, also has an upper-body injury. Calvin de Haan also was out of the lineup after having been hit in the face by an opponent's skate Saturday.
Capuano does not think it is a long-term situation. "He's pretty fortunate,'' he said. "He's lucky he had the shield on. He got stitched up pretty good there. We're fortunate he's all right." Lubomir Visnovsky, who expressed frustration Saturday about being a healthy scratch, got to play in de Haan's absence.
Lee's goal was his 16th of the season, two behind Filip Forsberg of Nashville, who leads NHL rookies with 18 . . . Frans Nielsen played his 500th NHL game and had an assist on Grabovski's second-period goal . . . Jaroslav Halak earned the victory with only eight saves.