TORONTO – The shot of life the Toronto Maple Leafs so badly needed came from the American Hockey League.
Ben Scrivens had nothing to do with a franchise-worst home losing streak that doomed the team’s season, but he had a big hand in ending it by making 29 saves in a 4-3 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday.
“This team was maybe a little bit fragile,” said Scrivens after being named the game’s first star. “I just wanted to try and come in and try to make as many saves as I could and really just give these guys a chance. All the credit goes to these guys, they’ve had a lot of pressure on them both internally and externally.”
It was the first time since Feb. 6—a span of 11 games—the team celebrated a victory at Air Canada Centre. The ensuing 55 days saw the Leafs plummet from playoff contention, replace coach Ron Wilson with Randy Carlyle and give general manager Brian Burke plenty of reasons to look at making big changes in the off-season.
Scrivens represents an interesting option moving forward.
The 25-year-old spent time with the Leafs in November and has become one of the top AHL goalies since being sent back to the Marlies. He leads that league in goals-against, sits third in save percentage and there is hope he’ll be part of a long run in the Calder Cup playoffs.
He did a nice job of handling the heat against a desperate Sabres team, getting a blocker on a 2-on-1 chance by Tyler Ennis early in the third period before stopping another shot in the dying seconds.
“He gave us a chance,” said Carlyle. “He stopped a 2-on-1 early in the third period and it kind of rallied everybody.”
Joey Crabb scored shorthanded and added an assist while Phil Kessel, John-Michael Liles and Matt Frattin also had goals for Toronto (34-36-9).
Ennis, Ville Leino and Drew Stafford replied for Buffalo (38-31-10), which saw its playoff hopes dealt a serious blow.
The Sabres now sit two points behind eighth-place Washington in the Eastern Conference with just three games to play. The Capitals hold the tiebreaker so Buffalo has to make up three points in the standings over the final week.
Asked after the game if he had been looking up at the out-of-town scores, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff replied: “I was looking higher than that—for the big fella to help out.”
There was a much better atmosphere inside Air Canada Centre than on most Leafs game nights in recent months. Rather than heckling their own team, fans had the chance to derisively chant Ryan Miller’s name throughout the third period.
The Sabres goalie didn’t allow any soft goals but thought he could have been better.
“We scored some goals tonight, so I didn’t need to be perfect,” said Miller. “But I needed to make another save or two.”
Playing for the second time in as many nights, Buffalo wasn’t able to impose itself on the fragile Leafs. They also couldn’t convert on three power-play opportunities.
It was a short-handed goal by Crabb that set the tone for the evening, with the Toronto forward stealing the puck from Andrej Sekera at the blue-line and beating Miller for a lovely breakaway goal at 9:32 of the first period.
That was an important 1-0 lead, especially with Scrivens making just his ninth NHL appearance.
There was very little he could do on the play that saw the Sabres tie the game 1-1. Drew Stafford drove around a defenceman before finding Ennis, who roofed the shot at 10:59 of the second period.
But Kessel restored Toronto’s lead less than five minutes later by ripping a shot past Miller for his career-best 37th goal of the season. He was as relieved as any of his teammates after they pulled out the victory.
“It’s been a while coming,” said Kessel. “I haven’t scored in awhile either. It was nice on both ends.”
It ended up being a pretty whirlwind 24 hours for Scrivens, who helped the Marlies register an important overtime victory in Rochester on Friday night before registering the third win of his NHL career on Saturday.
He could be on his way back to the AHL at any moment—Jonas Gustavsson is listed as day-to-day with a bruised knee—but should feel good about the longer-term opportunities that exist within the organization.
“You’ve got to focus on the task at hand,” said Scrivens. “Last night was Rochester, tonight was Buffalo and we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
Notes: Leafs centre Mikhail Grabovski left the game with a leg laceration … Tyler Myers sat out for the Sabres with a foot injury … Toronto scratched Cody Franson … Buffalo called up defencemen Brayden McNabb and T.J. Brennan from the AHL and inserted them into the lineup … Announced attendance was 19,546.