Sundin had two goals and an assist to help the Maple Leafs to a convincing 4-1 victory over Buffalo on Saturday night, the Sabres’ first loss in regulation.
“He’s our captain and a huge part of our hockey club,” Darcy Tucker said. “He’s the leader of our team, and goes out and plays hard every night. Tonight was just a phenomenal game.”
Sundin capped a three-goal second period that included goals by Tucker and Jeff O’Neill and gave the Maple Leafs their fifth win in 23 regular-season games in Buffalo since 1996.
The loss was Buffalo’s first in regulation since a 4-2 defeat against Philadelphia on April 7. The Sabres opened the season with 10 straight wins before falling to Atlanta 5-4 in a shootout last Saturday.
“Make no mistake about it, they dodged some bullets this year,” Toronto centre Michael Peca said. “This bullet hit them. There’s two angles – it’s either a major upset, or they’re going to lose one eventually, so no big deal.”
Sundin made it a big deal for the Maple Leafs, who have won four of five since a 7-2 loss at Ottawa over a week ago.
“For us, we’re still looking for an identity and consistency to be a good team in this league,” said Sundin, who registered his second multi-goal game of the season, and has eight points in his last four games. “I thought tonight we were a good team. It’s been up and down for us lately, so hopefully this is a step in the right direction for this club.”
Buffalo also suffered another loss as leading scorer Maxim Afinogenov was knocked out of the game in the first period with an upper body injury. He played five shifts, totalling nearly four minutes, before heading to the dressing room.
Afinogenov, with eight goals and 11 assists, entered the night tied with the Thrashers’ Marian Hossa for second in scoring in the NHL. Coach Lindy Ruff wasn’t specific as far as how long the speedy winger would be lost, other than saying he would be out “a while.”
It was the second consecutive game that the Sabres fell behind 4-1. They came back on Thursday to defeat Boston in a shootout, but there was no such rally against the tight-checking Maple Leafs.
“You play with fire, you’re going to get burned,” Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller said.
Jochen Hecht opened the scoring for the Sabres with his third goal of the season seven minutes into the first period. He outmuscled defenceman Brendan Bell before putting a one-handed backhand past Andrew Raycroft.
Sundin answered just over 10 minutes later, redirecting Kyle Wellwood’s pass at the top of the crease to beat Miller.
“That goal showed everybody on the bench that we could get some momentum going,” Tucker said. “It seemed to roll after that.”
The Maple Leafs broke it open in the second when Tucker, O’Neill and Sundin each scored in a 3:24 span midway through the period. Tucker’s team-leading 10th goal made it 2-1 at 9:20 with Toronto on a two-man advantage.
The Maple Leafs outshot the Sabres 17-4 margin in the period.
“They did a good job of spreading us around, and took advantage of their chances,” Hecht said.
Raycroft made 29 saves, including 16 in the third period, in winning his third straight start.
Miller was making his fifth consecutive start, and has allowed four goals in each of his last three starts.
“They came in and wanted to knock us off,” Sabres centre Derek Roy said. “They played well right off the bat.”
Notes: Toronto has allowed the opening goal in five of the past six games. … The game marked the end of the Maple Leafs’ three-game road trip. … Toronto centre Alex Steen missed about 11 minutes of the first period when a deflected puck cut his lip, forcing him to the dressing room for treatment. … Toronto defenceman Tomas Kaberle recorded an assist on Tucker’s goal, and has 10 points in his last five games.