Northern Ireland needed a stoppage-time penalty save from Maik Taylor to come away from Malta with a 1-1 draw.
David Healy's 18th international goal had given Lawrie Sanchez's side an early lead but a great strike from Ivan Woods levelled it before half-time.
Keith Gillespie of Northern Ireland and Ivan Woods of Malta were sent-off as tempers flared late on.
Malta then looked set for their first win in 18 months but Taylor dived to stop George Mallia's spot-kick.
Northern Ireland have now gone 10 games since their last win against Trinidad and Tobago 14 months ago.
It is a blow to boss Sanchez who had been looking for a boost from this match against opponents 25 places below them in the world rankings.
Northern Ireland had a couple of early scares before making the breakthrough after nine minutes in a swift counterattack.
Damien Johnson delivered a perfect chip to the back post and Healy headed home.
Malta equalised in the 35th minute after some sloppy play by Northern Ireland.
Steve Davis gave away a free-kick and Woods evaded Jeff Whitley to fire an unstoppable shot into the top corner.
That was Malta's first goal against the province who had won each of the five previous matches between the countries.
With 13 minutes to go, Gillespie and Woods were dismissed for lifting their hands to each other as things threatened to boil over.
Malta, without a win in 12 games, had a golden opportunity when Stephen Craigan's foul on Antione Zahra gave them a penalty but Taylor saved Northern Ireland from an embarrassing defeat.
Malta: Haber, Pullicino (Ciantar 62), Said, Dimech (Scicluna 62), Wellman, Woods, Agius (Mallia 74), Briffa, Mattocks, Anonam, Cohen (Sammut 86).
Subs Not Used: Gauci, Zahra, Grima.
Sent Off: Woods (77).
Goals: Woods 35.
Northern Ireland: Taylor, Gillespie, Craigan, Murdock, Hughes, Johnson, Davis (Mulryne 88), Whitley (Jones 59), Elliott (Brunt 59), Healy, Quinn (Feeney 69).
Subs Not Used: Ingham.
Sent Off: Gillespie (77).
Goals: Healy 9.
Ref: Mike Riley (England).