TORONTO – Buffalo and Toronto were both near the bottom of the NHL’s Eastern Conference standings a month ago, and now the Sabres are nine points ahead of the Leafs after their 5-1 victory Thursday night.
The Sabres got hot, while the Leafs look shot. Goaltender Ryan Miller and his teammates gave themselves a shake after some embarrassing losses in early January.
“It was a put-up or shut-up situation and we stepped up and rose to the occasion,” Miller explained. “It doesn’t mean we’re in the playoffs yet but it means we’re in position to make it now.
“We’re happy with our efforts and the way the guys are competing. The guys are paying attention to details. That’s a telltale sign that you want to win. It’s going to take that mentality for the rest of the season so we might as well own up to it.”
Ales Kotalik, with two goals, Brian Campbell, Jaroslav Spacek and Derek Roy scored for the Sabres, who are 10-2-2 in their last 14 games for 22 of a possible 28 points during their surge. This win lifted them even in points with Boston and the New York Rangers for sixth place in the East.
This win came on the heels of a 4-3 comeback overtime home win over Tampa Bay on Wednesday night.
“We knew we would be a little tired and the guys made smart choices,” said Miller, who was a clear winner in the goaltending duel with Vesa Toskala.
Toronto outshot Buffalo 35-23.
“We created a lot of scoring chances but we just couldn’t score the goals,” said Toskala.
Pavel Kubina scored for the Leafs, who moped their way through the third period with sagging spirits knowing they don’t have a prayer of making the playoffs now. They remain 14th in the East. They’re nine points out of a playoff qualifying position. It might as well be 90.
“These are the games we have to win to get back into it,” said Leafs forward Matt Stajan. “But you have to give them credit.
“They’re on a roll and their goalie is playing really well right now.”
Mats Sundin declined interview requests after this debacle and Leafs fans must be wondering if Saturday night’s home game against Atlanta will be his last in the blue and white given the Tuesday trading deadline and his impending free agency.
“I just don’t think we showed enough urgency with the puck,” was coach Paul Maurice’s overview. “We had a 3-on-1 and went offside and you can’t do that in a game like this.”
Campbell opened the scoring 2:36 into the game with a waist-high slap shot from the blue-line that appeared to catch Toskala off guard and, after that, the outcome was never in doubt.
“We were ready from the first draw,” said Kotalik.
“That definitely was a boost and made the guys feel like we had the advantage in the game,” said Miller.
The Sabres proceeded to take three consecutive penalties, but the fifth-best penalty killing in the league repeatedly trumped Toronto’s 28th-ranked power play.
Spacek made it 2-0 at the 59-second mark of the second period when his blue-line slapper sailed past a screened Toskala after Nik Antropov had taken Toronto’s first penalty, for holding, with six seconds left in the opening period.
Kubina got Toronto on the board when he got a breakaway pass from fellow-Czech Tomas Kaberle, put a quick move to induce Miller to go down, and slipped the puck into the vacated net at 2:48 while Henrik Tallinder served a hooking penalty.
“They got the one breakaway but for the most part we kept their shots to the perimeter,” said Miller.
Kotalik made it 3-1 at 8:59 when he got a pass from Thomas Vanek and took a wrist shot from the circle to Toskala’s right.
“I shot a lot of those the last couple of games and they didn’t go in,” Kotalik said after scoring his first goal in 16 games since Jan. 18.
“It went under my arm,” said Toskala. “Maybe that one I should save.
“I could have made a couple of more saves.”
With Tim Connolly being rested because the Sabres were playing a second game in two nights, Kotalik got to play on the top line with Vanek and Jason Pominville, and he made the most of the opportunity.
Roy made it 4-1 at 14:49 with Buffalo’s second power-play goal. The league’s seventh-best power play clicked expertly. Vanek got his second assist when he put a cross-crease pass on Roy’s stick blade for a quick relay into the open side of the net. Sundin, serving a holding penalty, watched from the penalty box.
Thousands among the announced Air Canada Centre crowd of 19,467 booed as the Leafs left the ice for the second intermission.
The Sabres were content to check the Leafs to a standstill in the third. Toronto had a 13-4 shots advantage, but Miller continued turning everything away.
“We kept them to the perimeter in a lot of situations and when they got in tight we collapsed down,” said Miller. “That shows that we’re paying attention, and that’s good to see.”
Maurice lifted Toskala and sent out a sixth skater with nearly three minutes remaining, and Kotalik scored an empty-netter with 53 seconds left.
Less than one-half the crowd was still around at the end, and there were more boos as the Leafs exited.
Buffalo was 2-for-5 and Toronto was 1-for-5 on power plays.
“We’ve played them well 5-on-5 the past couple of games but the difference was the special teams,” said Stajan. “It’s definitely disappointing.”
Campbell is hoping his agent can come to terms with GM Darcy Regier on a long-term contract this week so he can avoid being traded before the Tuesday deadline. He’s admitted the issue has been distracting.
“It was good to help the team out and get the win,” he said. “I feel as if I’m getting the jump back in the legs a little bit.”
Coach Lindy Ruff certainly hopes he’s got Campbell for the entire stretch run.
“He had a little rough stretch,” said Ruff. “There’s been a lot on his mind.
“When he plays well, it’s a good indicator of how we play as a team.”
It’ll be a sprint to the end, said Ruff.
“It’s going to be a grind till the end of the year,” said Ruff. “You won’t be able to tell till the final game.
“We’ve got to keep winning games. When you’re playing games against teams you’re right there with, you’re going to have to win the majority of them to stay ahead of them.”
The Leafs don’t figure in that scenario anymore.
Notes: Blocked shots: Sabres 20, Leafs 6. “They got the puck through from the point and we didn’t,” said Maurice . . . The Sabres lost F Mike Ryan to a groin injury in the early going . . . LW Jason Blake went an eighth game without scoring a goal . . . C Boyd Devereaux, who injured the medial collateral ligament in his right knee late in the 3-1 win over Columbus on Tuesday, will be out for four to six weeks, the Leafs announced . . . Buffalo RW Drew Stafford missed a seventh straight game while recovering from a sprained right ankle, and Buffalo RW Maxim Afinogenov missed a 23rd consecutive game since suffering a groin injury Jan. 1 . . . Leafs RW Wade Belak was a healthy scratch . . . After a home game Saturday against Atlanta, Toronto plays in Ottawa on Monday and flies south for games against Florida, Tampa Bay and Washington.