Leafs close gap in NHL East playoff race
Defeat Sabres 4-3 to move to within 4 points of final playoff berth
Air Canada Centre, Toronto
James Reimer (Tor) — 39 saves
Phil Kessel (Tor) — 1 goal, 1 assist
Mikhail Grabovski — 1 goal, 1 assist
The situation surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs became even more curious on Saturday.
On the ice, the Maple Leafs kept their playoff hopes alive with a 4-3 victory against the surging Buffalo Sabres before a wound-up crowd of 19,347 at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto has crept to within four points of the seventh-place Sabres and No. 8 New York Rangers in the NHL's Eastern Conference with 13 games remaining. Buffalo has 14 games left on its docket and New York 12 following Saturday's game at San Jose.
Off the ice and upstairs in the executive suites, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan confirmed a report from Quebec-based La Presse newspaper that the teachers have hired the financial firm of Morgan Stanley to explore the sale of their majority ownership stake in the Toronto sports empire that includes the Maple Leafs, the Raptors and FC soccer team.
"The Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan today stated that it will explore the possibility of selling its 66% majority share of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, and will be making no further public comment on the matter," the statement read.
The financial outlook has always been rosy for MLSE, even though its hockey team hasn’t played a postseason game since 2004. But the outlook hasn’t been that grand when the Maple Leafs go up against the Sabres in recent seasons.
Buffalo carried into the game a 29-10-1 record against Toronto since the 2004-05 lockout and the Sabres were 17-1-2 this season when leading after two periods. But the Maple Leafs dug deep for goals from Mikhail Grabovski and Phil Kessel two minutes and 33 seconds apart early in the third period for only their fourth win in 33 tries when trailing after 40 minutes.
"We talked in the second intermission how we needed to come out strong," said Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer, who made 39 saves and picked up his first NHL assist on Kessel's game-winner.
"These games are fun to play and even better when you win."
The Maple Leafs now have a pair of back-to-back one-goal victories over the rival Sabres with Reimer in goal. The two teams have one final regular-season meeting back at the Air Canada Centre on Mar. 29.
"We didn’t have an option," Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf said. "We knew where they were in the standings and we knew where we were.
"It was a huge win, a big character win. We knew what was at stake."
After Grabovski ripped a shot past Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, who was seeking his 25th career win against Toronto, Kessel got lucky when his pass to linemate Joffrey Lupul banked in off a Buffalo defender for his team-leading 28th goal, one more than Grabovski.
"Sometime you need to get lucky," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said of Kessel‘s game-winner in the 177th meeting between the teams.
The Maple Leafs lost centre Tim Brent with an upper-body injury in the second period.
When the Maple Leafs failed to score during their power-play opportunity in the first period and another midway through the third frame, it was 41st and 42nd consecutive man-advantage situations in which they have not scored against Buffalo.
The streak of futility spans 12 games, dating back to 8:30 of the third period of a Mar. 27, 2009 game, in which Nikolai Kulemin scored a power-play goal.
What a trip
Two weeks ago, the Sabres embarked on a critical seven-game road trip and despite the loss will arrive home in good stead. The loss to the Maple Leafs meant Buffalo grabbed nine of a possible 14 points with a 4-2-1 record.
The Sabres made stops in Manhattan to the play the Rangers, as well as Carolina, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Boston and Toronto. Buffalo's other loss was a 3-1 decision in Pittsburgh last Tuesday.
The Sabres return home for a quick turnaround game against the Ottawa Senators at 5 p.m. ET, which is really like 4 p.m. because the clocks turn back an hour on Sunday morning. The Senators may be in 15th in the East, but they have won three in a row and seven of their past 10 outings.