“Typical Darcy, he scores a goal and you can see the emotion on his face,” said teammate Matt Stajan. “And it goes right through our bench and into everybody’s play. We all want to make the playoffs and nobody more than Darcy.”
“We definitely build off his emotion.”
Tucker scored his 23rd and 24th goals of the season and the Maple Leafs shook off a devastating defeat in Buffalo 24 hours earlier to hand the Sabres a 4-1 loss to keep their playoff hopes alive.
It was an inspired effort, the Leafs winning most of the battles for loose pucks and outskating the quicker Sabres, a big-time response when other teams would caved in after such a heart-breaking loss.
“I don’t think it’s the makeup of our team,” said Tucker. “Even though we were told earlier in the year that we were picked to be out of the playoffs I really felt that we had a good enough team to make the playoffs and do well.”
“We have a lot of character people in here.”
Nikolai Antropov and Carlo Colaiacovo also scored for the Leafs (36-29-10), who remained 11th in the Eastern Conference, two points behind Montreal and Carolina for the eighth and final playoff spot and one point behind the 10th-place New York Islanders. The Canadiens, Hurricanes and Islanders also won Saturday.
Despite Friday’s heart-wrenching loss, Toronto wrapped a up week with two out of three wins against New Jersey and Buffalo.
“All in all, we have to be happy with this week,” said Leafs goalie Andrew Raycroft, the game’s third star after stopping 19 of 20 shots. “We won two of three games against the top two teams in our conference.”
It’s exactly what head coach Paul Maurice had determined was necessary before the week.
“I won’t admit this to you before hand, but … I thought we needed to get two out of three,” Maurice told reporters. “And I told the team that before this week.”
What he wasn’t sure of was his team’s reaction after Friday night’s debacle, the Leafs giving up a 4-1 lead in the third period to lose 5-4.
“I think there’s only two or three other games that I remember feeling like that after a loss – one was triple overtime in the final, one was double-overtime in the playoffs against Boston,” said the former Hurricanes coach. “That was a tough loss last night. But any questions about the commitment of our room and how bad they wanted it – they’re gone.”
“They wired themselves back up and played a hell of a game.”
Jochen Hecht scored the lone goal for the Sabres (48-20-7), who played only one good period out of six this weekend, but still managed a split in the home-and-home set.
“They played really well the whole game,” Sabres defenceman Teppo Numminen said of the Leafs. “They came at us hard from the start, and they really competed. Our game is skating, and it seems like we weren’t skating today. We’ve got to pick it up.”
The Leafs got the perfect tonic early on for a team no doubt shaky in its confidence after Friday night’s debacle, Tucker one-timing a shot from his usual spot down low on the power play just 3:28 into the game, bringing the Air Canada Centre crowd of 19,571 to life.
“We came out with a purpose and played a pretty good first period and I think that set the tone for the rest of the night,” said Tucker.
Toronto then dominated for the most of the period, outshooting Buffalo 16-3 before the Sabres tied it on their fourth shot, Hecht beating a screened Raycroft from an acute angle with only 1:03 left.
Tucker got the fans re-energized just 1:45 into the second period, whistling a wrist shot from the top of the left faceoff circle into the top corner over Miller’s glove side.
Colaiacovo made it 3-1 just 1:49 later, his shot along the ice from the top of the slot beating Miller inside the post, a goal that chased the star Sabres netminder to the bench in favour of backup Ty Conklin.
Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere then had a glorious chance to cut into the lead, skating in alone from centre ice, but his backhand deke was stopped by Raycroft.
Raycroft, who hasn’t been shown the love by Leaf fans this season, kept it a two-goal lead when he stopped Jason Pominville on a breakaway early in the third period.
Antropov then tipped a Bryan McCabe shot at 5:04 to give the Leafs a 4-1 lead – and this time the Toronto wouldn’t give it up.
Notes: Ottawa’s win at Tampa Bay on Saturday moved the Senators five points behind the Sabres for first place in the Eastern Conference with two weeks to go in the regular season … Jeff O’Neill was a surprise scratch for the Leafs. Defencemen Wade Belak and Andrew Wozniewski and forward Travis Green were also left behind. … Rick Vaive was honoured by the Leafs during the game for the 25th anniversary of his first 50-goal season. It was exactly 25 years ago Saturday night that Vaive scored No. 50 in a game against St. Louis. … The Leafs host Carolina on Tuesday and play at Atlanta on Thursday.