BUFFALO, N.Y. – Ryan Miller politely described it as “taking advantage of the schedule.”
After making 16 saves to record his second straight shutout, the Buffalo Sabres goaltender could just as easily have said that his team took advantage of a listless opponent.
Ultimately, Buffalo barely needed to break a sweat in its return to HSBC Arena on Wednesday. The team was worried about having a letdown in its first game on home ice in more than two weeks, but the Toronto Maple Leafs made sure that wasn’t an issue.
Tomas Vanek scored three goals and Miller stopped every shot he faced as Buffalo hammered the lifeless Leafs 5-0.
“They played back-to-back and had a tough loss (on Tuesday),” said Miller. “When you jump on them like that, it just makes it really tough. We’ve been in those situations before.”
Added coach Lindy Ruff: “I thought Toronto was flat.”
The easy win couldn’t have come at much better time for the Sabres. They spent Tuesday travelling across the continent from California and are at the start of an important stretch.
After hosting the Montreal Canadiens on Friday night, they have a home-and-home series with the Ottawa Senators. The Sabres sit seventh in the tight Eastern Conference standings and are hoping to move up with a couple wins.
“It’s a close race, we know that,” said forward Derek Roy. “Every point counts. We’re obviously watching the standings to see who is catching up. These are big games for us.
“If we want to make up some ground, we’ve got to win these division games.”
So far, so good.
The hat trick was the fifth of Vanek’s career and moved him into a tie with Jeff Carter for second on the league’s goal-scoring list with 32. Tim Connolly and Drew Stafford each added a goal and an assist for Buffalo (27-20-5).
The Maple Leafs were shut out for the fourth time this season and saw their record drop to 19-24-9.
Toronto gave rookie goaltender Justin Pogge the third start of his NHL career and basically hung him out to dry. While the scoreboard hardly seemed flattering to the Leafs netminder, it didn’t really reflect his performance.
“Thank God for Justin Pogge – he had an outstanding game,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “He made a number of saves or it could have been really ugly.”
The 22-year-old goaltender is on his way back to the American Hockey League for now. The rest of the Maple Leafs are left trying to figure out why they didn’t put up more of a fight.
Even though the team was playing for a second straight night, Wilson wasn’t ready to excuse his team.
“We had a day off on Sunday,” he said. “Playing back-to-back at this point in the season, we should be able to handle that.”
The Sabres controlled the puck from the opening faceoff.
Connolly made it 1-0 by tipping in a goal at 2:23 of the first period and Stafford extended the lead with a nice individual effort a little over 10 minutes later.
Vanek scored his team’s final three goals to equal a record that proves he’s a streaky scorer. It was the fourth straight time he’s recorded a natural hat trick – the first NHL player to do that since Cy Denneny in the 1920s.
The outburst was also a relief after he scored just twice in the last 11 games.
“You’re going to have a stretch like that over an 82-game season,” said Vanek.
In the midst of a rebuilding season, the Maple Leafs know all about a bad stretch.
The most telling stat of the night for them could be seen at the second intermission. To that point, Toronto had only taken one more shot on goal (nine) than it had minor penalties (eight).
It didn’t get much better, either.
The Sabres, meanwhile, had gone to great lengths to be ready for this game and were thrilled with the result. They’ve learned in the past that a return home isn’t always sweet.
“Sometimes you come back home and you relax, sit on the couch a little bit longer,” said Miller. “You just breathe a sigh of relief, you’re not travelling hotel to hotel for 10, 11 days straight.
“I think we did a nice job with the energy tonight.”
Notes: Connolly has eight points in his last five games … Pogge has allowed 13 goals against during his three NHL starts … Buffalo has already played 10 road games in 2009, logging 18,723 kilometres in travel … Jeremy Williams returned to Toronto’s lineup after missing 14 games with a shoulder injury … Mikhail Grabovski was a healthy scratch for the first time this season … Vanek has only missed one game during his four-year NHL career – he was a healthy scratch in Toronto on April 3, 2006.