TORONTO – If nothing else, the Toronto Maple Leafs seem to have put an end to one ugly part of their recent history—beating the Buffalo Sabres.
Whether they’ll be able to catch them in the playoff race and eliminate another one remains to be seen.
The fresh-faced Maple Leafs refused to let their slim post-season hopes evaporate Tuesday by pulling out a tense 4-3 victory over the Sabres. It was the third straight time they’ve defeated the division rival since the all-star break, an amazing accomplishment given that Buffalo held a 29-9-1 edge in the series prior to the recent string of losses.
“We’ve just got a bunch of young guys in here right now … and guys aren’t really remembering what (the Leafs) did two or three years ago,” said forward Darryl Boyce. “We’re just worrying about the present and we’re just going to keep rolling along.”
Toronto seemed to have exorcised some mental demons with its 2-1 win at Buffalo’s HSBC Arena on Feb. 16. They followed that up with a 4-3 victory at home on March 12 and another one by the same score on Tuesday night.
Rookie goaltender James Reimer was shelled in his first career start against the Sabres in early February and believes one of the turning points of this season came when the team was finally able to get the best of Buffalo.
“Often you beat yourselves before the game’s even started because you don’t know if you can beat their goalie or beat their team,” said Reimer. “When you do get that (first) win, you kind of realize: ‘Oh, these guys are beatable.’
“It shouldn’t be like that, but I think sometimes it is.”
The most recent win came at a critical time for the Maple Leafs. They are still five points adrift of Buffalo for eighth in the Eastern Conference and will likely need to win all five of their remaining games to have any chance.
A loss to the Sabres on Tuesday would have virtually ended their hopes.
“We’re going to try and win all of our games and see what happens,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “If we don’t get in, we don’t get in. But we’ll have given it our best shot.”
Boyce, Dion Phaneuf, Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski had the goals for Toronto (35-32-10), and rookie Nazem Kadri turned in a standout performance with two assists. Reimer finished with 28 saves.
Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Rob Niedermayer replied for Buffalo (38-29-9).
The Sabres found themselves in an early hole after Phaneuf skated over the blue-line on harmless looking rush and wired a shot past Ryan Miller. The Sabres goalie had been red hot of late—registering two shutouts in the last three games—but shouldered all of the blame for his early blunder.
“I had a chance to set the tone on my end and didn’t do it,” said Miller. “It just kind of went from there. … (The shot) was rising up and I didn’t have a step on it. So I just look stupid.”
The Leafs extended the lead to 2-0 at 10:46 of the first period after Kadri stripped the puck off Shaone Morrisonn in the corner and worked out front to Boyce, who scored his fifth of the season.
It was one of the finest games of Kadri’s young NHL career as he also set up the team’s third goal after Vanek had put Buffalo on the scoreboard. The rookie skated around Tim Connolly and fed MacArthur to make it 3-1 at 5:06 of the second period.
Kadri is making an impression during his second NHL callup while playing on an energy line with Boyce and Joey Crabb—three players who started the season together in the American Hockey League.
“It’s just a whole different level up here and I think all three guys have just been picking up their socks and getting the job done,” said Kadri.
The Sabres were quick to respond to MacArthur’s goal. Pominville squeezed a shot past Reimer at 6:25 and Niedermayer stripped Carl Gunnarsson of the puck to tie it 3-3 just 30 seconds later.
Wilson called a rare timeout to settle his team down and it seemed to work. Grabovski put Toronto back ahead for good at 13:35 of the second by racing to the net and directing a Phil Kessel pass behind Miller for his 29th goal of the season.
“When you get down to these last five or six games, you’ve got to lay it on the line and see what happens,” said MacArthur. “I just liked the way we respondedwhen they made it 3-3. We didn’t go into a shell, we went right back at them.”
Indeed, there are plenty of signs indicating this team has made progress.
While they might not be able to end the franchise’s playoff drought at six seasons, they may have planted the seeds for a better fate in the future. Getting wins over Buffalo is a pretty good start.
“Well we beat them the last three times, but I know what I’ll read tomorrow is our overall record for the last 30 years against Buffalo is such and such,” said Wilson. “The key is we won the games when we needed them. That’s a good sign for all of our guys who will be back next year.”
Notes:Fredrik Sjostrom and Brett Lebda were healthy scratches for Toronto … Phaneuf has four goals in his last eight games … The last time the Maple Leafs won six in a row was from Dec. 23, 2005-Jan. 2, 2006 … It was the 14th time this season Buffalo scored two goals less than 60 seconds apart … MacArthur hosted 40 athletes from Special Olympics in a private box … Announced attendance was 19,483.