BUFFALO, N.Y. – On a day Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula reiterated his faith in the slumping team, his players paid him back with a much-needed victory.
After Buffalo gave up a two-goal lead, Jason Pominville scored the go-ahead goal on a nifty setup from Thomas Vanek with 5:47 left in the second period, and the Sabres held on for a 3-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday night.
Buffalo snapped a three-game winless skid (0-2-1) and earned only its third victory in 12 games (3-7-2).
They bounced back from a 2-0 loss at Toronto on Tuesday to give them a semblance of momentum as they prepare to embark on a seven-game road trip that opens Saturday at the Islanders.
“It wasn’t our best game, so it was nice to be able to get that one,” Pominville said. “It was fun to see guys keep their composure. We’re not going through the stretch we would want, but we were playing well.”
Paul Gaustad had a goal and an assist, Matt Ellis also scored and Patrick Kaleta had two assists for the Sabres, a high-priced team that’s been criticized for under-achieving over the past two months.
Pegula came to his players’ defence in a series of interviews with several media outlets, including The Associated Press. The first-year owner blamed the Sabres’ struggles on a rash of injuries, and expressed confidence his team is not far off from bouncing back.
“It’s nice of him to put that belief in us,” said goalie Ryan Miller, who made 24 saves. “We’ve got a lot more work to pay him back.”
Mikhail Grabovski had a goal and assist and Joey Crabb also scored for the Maple Leafs, who blew a chance to move eight games over .500 for the first time since closing the 2006-07 season at 40-31-11, according to STATS LLC. They also snapped a four-game winning streak, failing to get their first five-game streak since Jan. 27 to Feb. 6, 2007.
A slow start proved too much for the Maple Leafs to overcome after they fell behind 2-0 before the game was four minutes old.
“A couple of bad bounces early put us behind the eight-ball,” Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said, noting how Ellis’ game-opening goal banked in off the skate of Leafs defender Cody Franson. “We fought, we just didn’t have enough to even it up in the third.”
Miller made two key stops in the final nine minutes, including getting his right pad out just in time to turn aside Franson’s shot from the right circle. Franson and Nazem Kadri also had shots ring off the post on consecutive chances 22 seconds apart in the second period.
“We didn’t have much puck luck,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “We didn’t get enough shots from the middle of the rink to scramble them up. And that’s something that let us down. But all in all, I thought we played well.”
The Sabres played better, with Pominville’s decisive goal coming on a heads-up play from Vanek. Chasing down a loose puck at the right boards, Vanek drove down to the red line before flipping a pass through the crease, past two defenders.
The puck bounced directly onto Pominville’s stick, allowing him to snap it into the open right side.
It was all about anticipation and making eye contact, according to Pominville.
“I knew the whole time he was going to make the play,” he said. “It just landed right on my stick. I just had to settle it down and put it away. It was one of those plays not many guys can make.”
In a season of endless line shuffles, coach Lindy Ruff has stuck with Pominville and Vanek, who have now combined to score 12 of the Sabres’ 34 goals in the last 16 games.
“That’s why they’re staying together,” Ruff said of a banged-up team that’s had 18 players miss at least one game due to injury. “They know where each other are going to be most of the time. They look for those types of plays.”
That injury number could hit 19 after rookie defenceman Brayden McNabb did not return after leaving the game with about 12 minutes left in the third. Ruff said McNabb continued playing but eventually didn’t feel well after being shaken up following an open-ice collision with Kadri in the first period.
NOTES: Sabres C Derek Roy returned after missing two games with a shoulder injury. …. Buffalo has lost seven straight road games in regulation to match a franchise worst. … The Leafs head back across the border to host the Rangers on Saturday in kicking off a five-game homestand.