TORONTO – With the Toronto Maple Leafs facing their biggest test of the season, Ron Wilson pushed all the right buttons.
Not only did the coach draw up a game plan that proved successful against the Buffalo Sabres, he also delivered a speech during the second intermission that helped spark a 4-3 comeback victory on Saturday. Mikhail Grabovski and Phil Kessel scored less than three minutes apart in the final period to secure an important win.
“We had a period to show that we’re serious when we talk about trying to make the playoffs,” said Wilson. “We came out gunning and got them on their heels.”
It ended a three-game slide for the Leafs and got the team back within four points of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Sabres and New York Rangers both sit at 74 points while Toronto has 70.
The gap would have widened to eight points had the Leafs failed to rally.
“That’s a huge win for our team,” said captain Dion Phaneuf. “It’s a big character win. We knew what was on the line and I think it shows what kind of character we have in our (dressing) room.”
One of the keys to victory was finding a way to get under the skin of Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller. He’s absolutely owned the Leafs during his NHL career—entering the night with a 24-9-0 record, 2.17 GAA and .931 save percentage vs. Toronto—but seemed to get off his game a little while continually dealing with traffic in front.
It was a strategy straight out of the coach’s playbook.
“It’s written on the board: `Get traffic in front of him, keep him deep, make him work,”‘ said Wilson. “The whole thing is you have to do it for 60 minutes because he’s played so much he might be a little tired in the third period. I don’t know if that was the case but getting the traffic there (helped).”
The Sabres didn’t exactly see it the same way.
Kessel scored the game-winner at 6:36 of the third period with an innocent-looking shot that banked in off the skate of Buffalo defenceman Steve Montador. They were an extremely frustrated group before boarding a bus for the short trip home.
“They got lucky,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said of the Leafs. “(The) puck went off the skate, sometimes you’ve got to live with that.”
Clarke MacArthur and Tyler Bozak also had goals for Toronto (30-29-10).
Mike Weber, Jochen Hecht and Jordan Leopold replied for the Sabres (33-27-8), who went 4-2-1 during a seven-game road trip.
There was a heightened atmosphere at Air Canada Centre for the game, one a number of Leafs had labelled a must-win. The home team showed more jump than it had during its recent slide thanks in part to Wilson’s decision to cancel Friday’s practice.
“We were off yesterday and had lots of energy,” said Grabovski.
After Weber and MacArthur traded goals in the first period, Bozak gave Toronto its first lead of the night just past the midway point of the game. Seconds after being denied on a breakaway, he took a pass from Kessel and beat Miller for just his third goal since Jan. 22.
The sophomore centre knows he needs to contribute more.
“I’m just trying to work hard,” said Bozak. “Things haven’t gone my way the whole year—a lot of chances that haven’t gone in. You’ve got to stay positive.
“We’re still right in this thing so you can’t sulk and get down on yourself. We’ve got to do it as a team here.”
The Sabres wrestled the momentum back before the end of the period. Hecht buried a rebound past James Reimer at 11:04 and Leopold beat him with a point shot on a power play at 15:31 to make it 3-2.
Like his teammates, the 22-year-old goaltender stood tall in the final period—denying Tomas Vanek and Brad Boyes from point-blank range after his team had surged ahead.
Reimer was appearing in his 13th straight games for the Leafs and has almost single-handedly resuscitated the team’s playoff hopes. Wilson believes the rookie has given the team its best stretch of goaltending since he was hired in June 2008.
“Probably for sure, yeah,” said Wilson. “A long stretch like this, you’re always like: `Is tonight the night where he’s going to wear down a little bit?’ And he’s had a couple of games where he wasn’t as sharp ashe’s been.
“You can’t expect the goalie to be perfect every night.”
Notes: Toronto’s Tim Brent was high-sticked in the eye during the second period. “I’ve said to him, `I have no idea why you don’t wear a shield,'” said Wilson. … Buffalo is 29-11-1 against the Leafs since the lockout. … Fredrik Sjostrom sat out for Toronto. … The Sabres are nursing plenty of injuries: Derek Roy (knee), Patrick Kaleta (lower body), Drew Stafford (hamstring), Paul Gaustad (upper body) and Chris Butler (upper body) all sat out. … Announced attendance was 19,347.