TORONTO – One Northeast Division team came out of this game in the thick of the playoff picture while the other found itself a long way out.
Earning two valuable points is only part of the bonus the Buffalo Sabres got with a 6-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night. They also kept their division rival from creeping further up the Eastern Conference standings.
All the Sabres were worried about afterwards is the fact that they are within one point of eighth-place Philadelphia.
“It’s pretty much against everybody right now,” said Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, who stopped 30 shots. “You go out and you worry about your own game and get your own points. You’re definitely not concerned about the other teams because it’s their own problem.
“You’ve got to worry about yourself.”
The Sabres are looking a lot better after this weekend.
They beat Carolina 7-1 at home on Friday before handing the Maple Leafs a loss 24 hours later. Next up for them is a game Wednesday against Tampa Bay before hosting Toronto next Friday.
The finish line is in sight and the push is on.
“(It’s important) to get on a roll right now,” said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff. “This is the time of year where you scoreboard watch and look at what the teams around you are doing.
“I told the team that we’ve just got to focus on one game at a time and I thought we did a good job tonight of staying focused.”
Jason Pominville and Jochen Hecht each had a goal and two assists while Ales Kotalik, Drew Stafford, Dan Paille and Henrik Tallinder added singles for Buffalo (34-28-11).
Ian White and Jiri Tlusty replied for the Maple Leafs (32-31-10), who find themselves six points back of the Flyers.
Toronto’s late season playoff drive might ultimately have been derailed by an injury to captain Mats Sundin. He suffered a groin strain on Wednesday and was forced to miss his first game of the season.
It was just the 44th regular season game the Maple Leafs have played without Sundin since he joined the team more than 13 years ago. His presence was clearly missed – especially after Nik Antropov left the game with a knee injury during the first period.
“(People) have a view of Mats Sundin, what he is and what he means to the team,” said Leafs coach Paul Maurice. “But sometimes you don’t get a glimpse of his intensity, and certainly his presence.
“He’s one of the best players in the world, and a very big part of our team. I didn’t get the feeling of resignation from the players, that we couldn’t score or couldn’t win, but when (Mats) goes down and then Nik goes down early, we get pretty small pretty quickly.”
That allowed the Sabres to pretty much control the tempo throughout.
They had several AHLers in their lineup because of injuries and were content to clog the neutral zone and slow the Maple Leafs attack. It worked perfectly.
“I didn’t know what we would have for energy,” said Ruff. “Back-to-back games. We talked about being smart, let’s not give anything up.
“We gave up a few shots early but we didn’t risk a lot.”
They got off to a good start with a couple opportunistic plays.
Kotalik opened the scoring at 7:06 while Buffalo was on a 4-on-3 power play. He took a pass down low from Derek Roy and beat Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala with a quick shot.
After White tied the game 1-1, Hecht put the Sabres back ahead on the very next shift. Buffalo briefly circled the puck around the offensive zone before Hecht redirected a Pominville pass in at 14:24.
“You never want to give up a goal right after you get one,” said Pominville. “It’s a momentum-swinger, you create energy that way.
“For us I think we stopped everything they got by scoring there.”
And the Sabres kept coming.
Patrick Kaleta slammed into Leafs defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo on the forecheck before the puck found its way to Stafford, who beat Toskala with a wrist shot at 17:41.
Not only did the Maple Leafs start the second period trailing 3-1, they did so without Antropov. That left Toronto without its top two scorers.
Tlusty’s first goal in 19 games at 7:29 of the third period briefly got them back in it before Pominville, Paille and Tallinder scored to put the game out of reach.
The Maple Leafs next play Tuesday night in Long Island and the players know they have a tough hill to climb with just nine games left.
“We’re probably going to have to run the table and get some help,” said Leafs defenceman Ian White. “But we’ve got (Buffalo) two more times and Boston twice, too.”
They’d gladly trade places with the team that beat them on Saturday.
But that’s not to say that the Sabres are in the clear.
“We’re not celebrating anything yet,” said Miller. “There’s still an eighth of the season left. There’s definitely points out there to make some ground.
“As long as everybody’s log-jammed everybody has a chance. You’ve got to be the team that’s dedicated night in and night out.”
Notes: Toskala has started 30 of the last 31 games for Toronto … The teams still have two more meetings, including next Friday at Buffalo … Mark Bell returned to the Leafs lineup after missing 31 games while recovering from a broken orbital bone. He wore a full facemask … Darcy Tucker celebrated his 32nd birthday.