TORONTO – The wins might not necessarily be coming for the Buffalo Sabres, but they are accumulating points and building confidence.
After losing in the final 15 seconds of the game to the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday, Buffalo battled back Wednesday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs and took the game to the shootout.
Phil Kessel, Nikolai Kulemin and Morgan Rielly scored for the Maple Leafs. James Reimer made 27 saves. In the shootout, Toronto scored on all three of their attempts to claim the extra point.
Sabres interim coach Ted Nolan couldn’t put his finger on what was different in the third period Wednesday as opposed to Tuesday, but credited the efforts of some of the leaders on the team.
“I think the guys just bared down a little bit,” he said. “We had some great leadership tonight again from Steve Ott and he really willed this game back. I thought [Zemgus] Girgensons was outstanding here tonight. Overall, the guys worked hard.”
The game marked the fifth and final meeting between the two Atlantic Division rivals. Toronto ended up going 3-1-1 to win the season series.
Buffalo has collected six points in their past five games and the players are starting to see the work they’re putting in produce more of the results they’re looking for.
“We’re definitely playing a simpler game. It keeps us in more hockey games,” Miller said. “You’re going to pick up points that way. That’s the secret to the NHL now is just hang around and be in the games and then separate yourself. If you can get good chemistry and if you get lucky, you’re not going to get hurt too often with your forward group or your D group.”
Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers returned to the lineup after serving a three-game suspension for an illegal hit to the head of Dainius Zubrus on Jan 4. He played 26:02 against Toronto and recorded the primary assist on Ellis’ goal.
He also played a big part in a successful penalty kill in overtime.
“I thought we did a really good job. I thought we were pretty aggressive and I thought that’s what we needed to try to do to try and limit their chances,” he said. “It’s never easy 4-on-3, 5-on-3 but the way we pressure them, that’s what we needed to do and it resulted in a pretty good kill.”
Nolan was impressed with the 6-foot-8 defenseman’s game.
“You can tell how much you missed a player tonight and how significant he was tonight. I thought Tyler Myers, his first game back, it was probably one of his better games he’s played all season long,” Nolan said. “He played with a little pizzazz, he played with some energy and he was very aggressive. He had a great game.”
The Maple Leafs took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission. Kessel’s goal came 9:21 into the period when he capitalized on a clearing attempt by Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff that went off the boards, but not out of the zone. Kessel collected the loose puck, skated toward the net and let loose a wrist shot from 44 feet out through traffic that beat Miller.
Buffalo scored twice to take a 2-1 lead. First, Ellis tied the game when he converted on a cross-ice pass from Myers.
Then at the 6:34 mark of the second period, Moulson tallied to take the lead. Collecting the puck at the red line on the penalty box side of the ice, he skated in over the Maple Leafs line uncontested and stared Reimer down. He picked the top left corner with a jaw-dropping wrist shot.
“I saw the D was sliding over and I couldn’t get it over to [Tyler Ennis] so I had to shoot it,” Moulson said. “Lucky enough, I didn’t think it went in either, but it hit the bar and went in.”
Girgensons was awarded a penalty shot 5:48 into the second period after he was hooked by Jake Gardiner while driving to the net. He couldn’t convert as Reimer stopped Girgensons’ backhand attempt with his left pad.
Although he didn’t earn a point, he did have one impressive stat line. Girgensons ended up with a season-high 13 hits in the game.
However, Toronto rallied and did so quickly. Fifty-nine seconds later, Kulemin netted one to even the score. Then, with 8:38 to go in the second, Rielly cashed in on a pass from Nazem Kadri to give the Maple Leafs a 3-2 lead.
The Sabres carried a power play over into the third period and that’s when Hodgson was able to make it 3-3. Tyler Ennis took a shot on Reimer’s short-side that the goaltender turned aside, but Hodgson picked up the rebound and the puck found its way through Reimer and into the back of the net.
The game marked not only the return of Myers, but Drew Stafford as well. He played after missing four games with an upper-body injury.
However, the team lost Matt D’Agostini midway through the first period due to an upper-body. He left the game 7:05 into the first and did not return. Nolan did not have a detailed update on his status after the game, but said he could be out for “a little while.”
The Sabres are back at home Saturday night when they take on the Columbus Blue Jackets at 7 p.m. at First Niagara Center.
Buffalo hopes they can keep showing progress with every passing game. Nolan said it starts with the leaders in the hockey department and trickles down from there.
“What’s you’re trying to do is really change the culture and try to change the approach of what you’re trying to do,” he said. “We don’t want to be a fly-by-night team that plays good at certain moments. The elite teams learn to do it on a consistent basis. We’re getting a little bit more consistent and we’re growing.”