In what was easily their biggest game of the season, the Toronto Maple Leafs pulled off a seemingly-improbable home iceÂ victory over their hated rivals — and nemeses — the Buffalo Sabres.
Thursday’s loss to Philadelphia magnified the pressure on the Maple Leafs; simply, a loss to the Sabres tonight, whom the Leafs are chasing for the 8th and final playoff spot, would essentially put an end to Toronto’s faint hopes for a long-awaited return to the playoffs.Â Compounding matters, the Sabres were walking into ACC having compiled a 4-1-1 record through six games of a road trip, and a 7-1-1 record in their previous nine visits to Toronto.
In short, this game was destined from the outset to be anything but easy for the Leafs.
A fast-paced game started off on an all-too-familiar note, as the Leafs found themselves trailing early on a screened point shot from low-scoring Sabres blueliner Mike Weber.Â Mike Komisarek, this season’s resident whipping boy, didn’t earn himself any brownie points with the fans in helping to create the screen by failing to move Mike Grier out of the slot.Â Buffalo would go on to outshoot Toronto 12 – 7Â in the opening period, although the home side was able to get one back courtesy of ex-Sabre Clarke MacArthur.
With the Leafs arguably lucky to escape the first period tied at one apiece, one would have expected them to cash in on the momentum of their good fortune and come out guns a-blazing in the second. And they did just that, exchanging several odd-man rushes with Tyler Bozak converting on a beautiful feed by Phil Kessel … just seconds after overhandling the puck on a clear breakaway.Â However, less than a minute later the Sabres would stifle the Leafs’ momentum as Jochen Hecht fired a rebound up and over a sprawling James Reimer.
From there, the Sabres took over the remainder of the period, punctuating the raucous atmosphere of the crowd with a Jordan Leopold powerplay goal from the point that Reimer would certainly like to have back (a goal eerily similar to the first one allowed against Philadelphia on Thursday night, also on a powerplay).Â Â The Sabres finished the period with 20 shots on goal to the Leafs’ 12, and a 3-2 lead.
In previous years, and indeed, previous months, one might have expected the Leafs to crumble entering the 3rd period down a goal (entering, the Leafs were 3-26-3 when trailing after 2 periods).Â But that was not to be the case tonight.Â A different team than what we’d seen through 4o minutes stepped onto the ice for the final frame of not only this particular game, but quite possibly their playoff hopes, also.Â From the drop of the puck the Leafs were firing on all cylinders, taking full control and taking the game to the Sabres.Â Four minutes in, Mikhail Grabovski tied the game on a picture-perfect cross-ice pass by Carl Gunnarson. Two minutes later Phil Kessel would use his speed to drive around a flat-footed Leopold and snap a shot past a surprised Ryan Miller to give the Leafs a lead which, just minutes before, had seemed all but impossible.
Unlike previous games where the third period proved their undoing, the Leafs this time avoided falling back into the defensive shell which has been their Achilles’ heel all season. Rather, they kept up a relentless pressure on Miller throughout the period, refusing to allow the Sabres a chance to regain any momentum.Â Reimer was big when he had to be, and when the final horn sounded he had stopped 39 of 42 (.929) and the Leafs had earned a 4-3 victory … and more importantly, two points on their rivals.
The two points gained were significant in many regards: not only did the regulation victory pull the Leafs to within striking distance of the Sabres, it also pulled them closer to the Hurricanes (who lost in regulation to Columbus) and kept them ahead of Atlanta and New Jersey, both winners tonight.
In short, as it turns out a loss tonight would have destroyed all but the faintest, mathematically-possible post-season hopes for the Maple Leafs.Â Instead they remain in the thick of the race, and although the odds remain slim we do have meaningful hockey in March — something this city has not seen in several years.
Can tonight’s game mark a turning point for the team? With games against Tampa Bay (home), Carolina (road), Florida (road, b2b) and Boston (home) in the next week, the schedule is anything but favorable. The Leafs must find a way to bottle the momentum gained from tonight’s victory, and use it to take advantage of a suddenly offensively-dry Lightning squad on Monday night.
A quick note about James Reimer
Over his last 15 games, including tonight, Reimer has faced the following shots:
* Left with injury, loss taken by J-S Giguere
Draw your own conclusions off the data above, but I would suggest 15 games is an adequate sample size.Â Three quick thoughts come to mind:
(1) In those 15 games Reimer has really had only one terrible outing, against the defending Stanley Cup champions, and two below-par outings, which came against Montreal and Pittsburgh;
(2) The Leafs defense has allowed over 30 shots in 8 of Reimer’s last 15 appearances;
(3) In three games since being thrashed by Chicago, Reimer’s save % has steadily improved in each.
Looking forward to your thoughts as always,