Air Canada Centre, Toronto, ON
Clarke MacArthur (TOR) — 1G, 2A
Nazem Kadri (TOR) — 2A
Thomas Vanek (BUF) — 1G
Thirty seconds could have spelled the death knell of the Toronto Maple Leafs' late playoff run.
Up 3-1 in the second period, the Maple Leafs looked like they had things well in hand in their latest must-win game of the season but saw the eighth-place Buffalo Sabres score two goals 30 seconds apart to tie the contest.
After coach Ron Wilson called a timeout to steady his troops, Toronto rallied, with Mikhail Grabovski scoring the winner at 13:35 as the Maple Leafs kept their playoff hopes alive by holding on for a 4-3 win in regulation over the Sabres.
With five games left, Toronto now sits five points behind Buffalo for the final playoff spot in the East.
Grabovski may have scored the winner, but it was Clarke MacArthur's night. The former Sabre burned his old team with a goal and two assists, sparking the game-winner with a fantastic cross-ice outlet pass to Phil Kessel, who slid it over to Grabovski for the decisive goal.
"It's always nice to score against your old team, I'm not going to lie," said MacArthur, who was a Sabre from 2007-10 and played 168 games for Buffalo before he was traded to Atlanta.
"But at this time of year, it's all about [the playoffs]."
The 25-year-old MacArthur extended his career-best in goals (21) and points (59).
Dion Phaneuf and Darryl Boyce had the other goals for the Leafs, while Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, and Rob Niedermayer replied for Buffalo.
A loss, and even a win in overtime or a shootout, against the Sabres would've all but ended the Maple Leafs' playoff aspirations. Still, with the victory, Toronto will likely have to win its last five games just to have a shot of catching Buffalo.
The Sabres only need to get five points in their final six games to eliminate Toronto from the post-season.
And Toronto needs to jump over the ninth-place Hurricanes to even get at the Sabres. Carolina didn't do the Leafs any favours on Tuesday, as the 'Canes beat Washington in a shootout to remain two points ahead of Toronto. Both Carolina and Buffalo hold the tiebreaker over the Leafs, and each has a game in hand.
Next up for Toronto (35-32-10) is a date in Boston on Thursday, while the Sabres (38-29-9), who had their three-game winning streak snapped, host the New York Rangers on Wednesday. Carolina hosts Montreal on Wednesday.
Nazem Kadri may have played his best game in a Leaf uniform, notching two assists against Buffalo to put his total at five points (including two goals) in seven games since his latest call-up.
"You learn a lot," the 20-year-old said of his latest stint with the big club during this intense late-season playoff charge. "It feels like we're in the playoffs already."
Leaf rookie James Reimer was again solid in net for the Maple Leafs, saving his best work for late in the game, making key saves on a Sabres power play midway through the third and again in the final minute, when Buffalo had another power play and the net empty for a 6-on-4 advantage.
"I think we definitely [still] have confidence … which is what you need in this league," said Reimer, who made 28 saves and improved to 3-1-0 against the Sabres.
Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller kept his team in the game by making some great stops in the third period as the Leafs tried to pull away but likely wants to have the opening goal back, as Phaneuf snuck an unscreened shot from the blue-line past his glove side to make it 1-0 Toronto 1:34 into the first period. Miller made 31 stops.
Toronto shut Buffalo out on the power play, going 2-for-2 in both penalty kills after watching Detroit convert both its chances on Saturday, but still couldn't figure things out against the Sabres on the man advantage.
The Leafs went 0-for-5 on the man advantage, which included a 5-on-3, and have now gone 0-for-47 against the Sabres in their last 13 games, meaning they haven't converted a power play against Buffalo in two seasons.
A Toronto turnaround
About the only troubling games the Sabres have encountered on their remarkable 24-11-5 run have been against the Maple Leafs, a team Buffalo once owned. In fact, before the Maple Leafs won the last three meetings between the Queen Elizabeth Way rivals this season, the Sabres were a dominant 29-9-1 in the previous 39 meetings against Toronto since the lockout.
But the Sabres allowed the speedy Maple Leafs to stretch out their attack and yielded way too many odd-man rushes to Toronto. It also didn't help matters that the usual stingy Ryan Miller surrendered a softy on a 67-foot slapper from Maple Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf early in the game. Miller admitted he "screwed up" on the play.
Veteran Sabres forward Rob Niedermayer wasn't about to criticize his dependable goalie for the misstep because where would Buffalo be without Miller? Instead, Niedermayer praised the way the Maple Leafs played in the last three games.
"They played really well and deserve credit," he said. "Everybody in that room is playing desperate hockey and it's been working."
The Sabres had an opportunity to eliminate the 10th-place Maple Leafs from playoff contention, but the loss now has them only four points up on the ninth-place Carolina Hurricanes with six games remaining.
On the 90-minute bus ride home, the eighth-place Sabres swiftly turned their attention to Wednesday's game at home against the seventh-place New York Rangers. A win in regulation time would allow the Sabres to equal the Rangers.