TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t want to let the season slip away without sending a message to the Buffalo Sabres.
Luke Schenn’s long knuckling shot broke a third-period tie Thursday as the Maple Leafs defeated Buffalo 4-2 – the first time Toronto beat its division rival all season. Solving the Sabres provided plenty of motivation for a Leafs team that has just four games left to play before the start of another long summer.
“It’s a good thing to get off our back coming into next year,” said forward Viktor Stalberg. “We want to show them what this team is going to be about the next couple years here.”
Toronto outshot Buffalo in all six meetings between the teams this season, but were often stymied by Vezina Trophy candidate Ryan Miller. This one looked to be following a familiar script until Schenn’s shot went off the stick of Buffalo forward Raffi Torres and over Miller’s shoulder at 8:30 of the third period.
“I was a little bit surprised to see it go in,” said Schenn. “I think it hit one of their sticks on the way in. A bit of a lucky goal, but I’ll take it.”
Leafs coach Ron Wilson described the winning goal as a “knuckleball” and was also surprised to see it go in.
“You have to earn every goal, Ryan doesn’t give you anything,” said Wilson, who coached Miller with Team USA at the Olympics.
It was a night of unlikely heroes for Toronto. Not only did Schenn get his fifth goal of the season, but Garnet Exelby ended a goal-less drought of 154 games when he scored in the second period.
The veteran defenceman hadn’t found the back of the net since Dec. 18, 2007.
“I don’t score a lot of goals,” said Exelby, who now has seven in 405 career NHL games. “I probably remember every single one of them.”
Stalberg and Fredrik Sjostrom had the other goals while J.S. Giguere made 22 saves for the Maple Leafs (29-36-13), who ended a two-game winless stride.
Derek Roy and Steve Montador replied for Buffalo (43-24-10).
One of the reasons the Sabres have such a comfortable lead atop the Northeast Division standings is their success against Toronto this season. They entered this game with the chance to clinch the division crown – and home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs – but the Leafs forced them to wait another couple days before that happens.
Even though they were playing for the second time in as many nights, the Sabres were clearly disappointed with their performance.
“They played a more organized game than we did, that’s for sure,” said Miller. “We got ourselves in penalty trouble, we got ourselves in trouble in our own end, we got outshot. Terrible effort.”
Added coach Lindy Ruff: “It looked like from the start of the game we weren’t going to have the energy. We were trying to get by.”
The Leafs jumped on the Sabres early thanks to a nice shot from Stalberg, who has three of his eight goals this season against Miller. The rookie fired the puck past the Sabres goalie’s glove at 10:51 of the first period.
Afterwards, he laughed when it was suggested that he might be the one Toronto player who has Miller’s number.
“I think that’s just a matter of getting a little luck against him,” said Stalberg. “He’s a great goaltender, probably the best in this league. It’s a little confidence boost for me scoring a lot on him.”
Despite taking the loss, it was still a good game for Miller. He robbed Christian Hanson from close range in the first period, stopped a Rickard Wallin breakaway in the second period and denied Stalberg late in the game to keep it close.
The 29-year-old stopped 30 shots and finished the season with a .953 save percentage in the six meetings with Toronto. He certainly was on the minds of the Maple Leafs.
“It’s about time we beat Buffalo,” said Schenn. “We’re aware that we haven’t had too much success against him lately, that’s what we were saying before the game. … It’s finally nice to break it and get a win.”
While the Sabres are focused on the upcoming playoffs, Toronto is already looking ahead to the fall.
“It’s good to set the tone at least for next year,” said Exelby. “I’m sick of losing to that team. Something had to give.”
Notes: Toronto dressed seven rookies for the game, including Irwin … Jeff Finger, Jamie Lundmark and Wayne Primeau were all healthy scratches for the Leafs … Tim Connolly, Thomas Vanek, Patrick Kaleta and Chris Butler sat out for Buffalo … The Leafs scored the first goal in a game for just the 29th time … Announced attendance was 19,090.