TORONTO – With his team’s season on the line, Buffalo Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff couldn’t even bear to watch.
He saw Tomas Kaberle score on the first shootout attempt and then turned away. When Ruff heard his bench erupt several minutes later, he knew his team had lived to see another day.
“I told the team, we have a chance,” Ruff said after the 4-3 comeback win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night. “We have to sit around tomorrow and have some things happen. But I told them, ‘Let’s get to Saturday and make someone win.”‘
Maxim Afinogenov’s shootout goal in the sixth round ended the drama. Thomas Vanek, Steve Bernier and Derek Roy scored in regulation for the Sabres, who erased 2-0 and 3-2 deficits to grab a huge win that moved them to within three points of Philadelphia and Boston, who hold down the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
“We’re alive for another couple of days,” said Sabres goalie Ryan Miller.
Maybe. But if the Flyers and Bruins both record victories Wednesday night, their season is over.
“We know our chances are slim so we’ve just got to do our part and win,” said Sabres forward Jason Pominville.
The Sabres have to win their final two games, at Montreal on Thursday and at Boston on Saturday, and still hope against hope that Philadelphia, Boston and Washington lose some games in the meantime. The Caps beat Carolina 4-1 Tuesday night to move to within one point of the Flyers and Bruins while also tying the Hurricanes for the Southeast Division lead, although the Carolina has the tiebreaker.
Buffalo deserved the victory, outshooting Toronto 41-22 but running into a hot Andrew Raycroft. The Leafs backup netminder was terrific in his first start since Jan. 20.
“We really got the chances but I thought Raycroft did a real good job and he almost played the spoiler,” said Miller.
Alex Steen, Tomas Kaberle and Darcy Tucker scored for the Leafs, who were without star centre Mats Sundin. His groin problem resurfaced Monday and head coach Paul Maurice decided it was wise to keep him out. There’s a chance the 37-year-old has played his last game as a Maple Leaf if he doesn’t return for the final two games Thursday against Ottawa and Saturday at Montreal. He’s an unrestricted free agent July 1.
But interim Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher didn’t hesitate when asked whether the rebuilding club wants to bring the big Swede back.
“Absolutely,” Fletcher said between periods. “I would say it’s a very strong consensus we would want to bring Mats back.”
Sundin wasn’t available to the media Tuesday but has consistently said he wants to retire a Leaf.
“He made a pretty strong commitment at the trade deadline when he said he didn’t want to play for another team,” said Fletcher. “He’s been a Leaf since 1994 and I think he wants to finish his career here.”
While the focus has shifted to the off-season for the eliminated Leafs, the Sabres were all about the here and now. With their season on the line, the Sabres got off to the worst possible start. Tucker backhanded a rebound from Pavel Kubina’s shot into an open side just 31 seconds into the game for a 1-0 Leafs lead.
The Sabres ouplayed the Leafs for much of the period but Raycroft was the difference, making 11 saves.
Miller gave up his second goal of the period on five shots. Kaberle drew him out of the net and beat him with a wrap-around on a power play with 57 seconds to go in the first. It was Kaberle’s first goal in 33 games.
Buffalo came charging out in the middle period. Roy scored his team’s first goal at 4:22 when he knocked in a rebound at the side of the net.
It was all Buffalo in the period as the Sabres outshot the Leafs 16-6, but again Raycroft shut the door.
Raycroft’s best sequence came seven minutes into the third period when he made three consecutive saves on Roy, Vanek and Afinogenov, and the Air Canada Centre crowd if 19,288 showed its appreciation.
“I’m going to sleep well tonight for sure,” said Raycroft. “You forget how much fun it is to get out there and compete. It’s nice to get out there and realize I’m an NHL player again too.”
With the ice tilted towards the Toronto end, the tying goal finally came at 9:18 when Bernier jammed home a rebound over a sprawled Raycroft. The goal needed a lengthy video review because the net came out of its moorings but it stood.
The Leafs came right back with what could have been a back-breaker. Steen took a pass from Alexei Ponikarovsky in the slot and beat Miller stick side at 12:03 to make it 3-2.
But the Sabres didn’t quit, Vanek deflected Anfrej Sekera’s point shot on a power play at 14:39 to pull Buffalo back to 3-3 and force overtime.
Notes – Sabres defenceman Teppo Numminen was activated off the injury-suspended list before Tuesday’s game but did not dress against the Leafs. He’s been cleared to play more than six months after the 39-year-old had open-heart surgery … Injured Sabres not in the lineup included defencemen Jaroslav Spacek (chest) and Dmitri Kalinin (shoulder) as well as forwards Tim Connolly (hip) and Michael Ryan (groin) … Joining Sundin on the sidelines for Toronto was forward Kyle Wellwood, who will undergo a sports hernia surgery Wednesday in Philadelphia, ending his season. Nik Antropov (knee) was also out along with defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo (hamstring).