BUFFALO, N.Y. – Even without captain Mats Sundin, the Toronto Maple Leafs are still alive in the playoff chase.
Vesa Toskala stopped 35 shots, and Matt Stajan had a goal, an assist and prevented a goal by blocking Ales Kotalik’s shot headed for a wide-open net, in a 4-1 win over the perplexing Buffalo Sabres on Friday night.
“Everybody’s written us off when we lost Mats,” Stajan said, referring to Sundin, who missed his third straight game with a groin injury. “We’re not going to die in here. We’re going to keep going until it’s over.”
The win, the Leafs’ fourth in five games, moved Toronto within five points of Boston for the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff berth. The Maple Leafs also won their fifth straight road game, the team’s best string since closing the 2003-04 season with a similar run.
The Sabres’ playoff push took a hit. In having a three-game winning streak snapped, Buffalo lost ground, dropping to 10th, a point behind Washington after the Capitals beat Atlanta.
“We have to take care of our own business,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “There’s nothing we can do looking at the outside anymore.”
Buffalo was undone by an inept power play, and failed to build off a 7-4 win against Tampa Bay on Wednesday, a game in which the Sabres scored six unanswered third-period goals.
Jason Blake and Darcy Tucker scored four minutes apart in the first period to put the Maple Leafs up 2-0. After Thomas Vanek cut the deficit to 2-1 in the opening minute of the second, rookie Anton Stralman regained the Maple Leafs’ two-goal edge midway through the frame by scoring his first career goal. Stajan sealed the win, converting his own rebound with seven minutes left.
“We’ve kind of dug ourselves into a hole,” Sabres forward Jason Pominville said. “We have to make sure we get a good start, because when you don’t get a lead, teams are patient and it’s tough to come back.”
It was even tougher for the Sabres to mount a comeback when their power play failed to produce. Buffalo converted 1-of-8 opportunities and failed to score on three two-man advantages, including a two-minute stretch in the second period during which the Leafs were penalized three times.
“We had our chances, we didn’t bear down enough and didn’t execute, and that gave them a little bit of momentum,” Sabres forward Drew Stafford said.
Toskala did his part, stopping 28 shots through 40 minutes, and then making two key saves in the third period – both times foiling Pominville.
Toskala’s most acrobatic save came with 10:50 left, when he got a piece of Pominville’s hard and bouncing shot from the right boards, but the puck had enough momentum to dribble past him. Toskala reached back with his stick and swept the puck out of the crease inches before it crossed the goal line.
With three minutes left, Toskala made a key glove save, stopping Pominville on a short-handed breakaway.
Give Stajan an assist, too, in the goaltending department.
With Toskala out of position after stopping Derek Roy from in close, Stajan kicked out his shin to deflect Kotalik’s shot during Buffalo’s two-man advantage early in the second period.
Anything to help.
“I think Vesa makes enough saves for us,” said Stajan, who was credited with four blocked shots.
Maple Leafs coach Paul Maurice sensed the boost his team got in winning a game without not only Sundin, but also Nik Antropov (knee) and defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo (groin).
“That’s a great confidence-booster, and I don’t think you can manufacture that kind of confidence that comes from success like that,” Maurice said.
Notes: Sabres C Tim Connolly’s season is over after the team announced he’ll have surgery next week to remove bone spurs in his hip that have been nagging him for the past three months. … The Leafs, 7-0-1 in their past eight road games, play at Ottawa on Saturday. … Pominville had an assist on Vanek’s goal, extending his point streak to four games (three goals, seven assists).