The Sabres were 40 minutes from watching their playoff hopes vanish when they went to the locker room after the first period training the Toronto Maple Leafs 1-0. But Jason Pominville's second-period goal tied the game, and goals by Thomas Vanek and Paul Gaustad in a 26-second span of the third period gave Buffalo a 3-1 win Wednesday night.
With 87 points, the 10th-place Sabres are still four points behind the eighth-place New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference. To avoid a second consecutive non-playoff season, they must win at Carolina on Thursday and against Boston on Saturday while the Rangers must lose twice to Philadelphia. In addition, ninth-place Florida can't get more than two points.
"If we can win out, I think we can feel decent about the effort we put in over the last two weeks," said goaltender Ryan Miller, who made 32 saves. "If we do end up missing the playoffs, it's not going to feel real good, but we've given ourselves a chance to compete in these last few games, and that's the kind of character we need moving forward. If we make the playoffs, that's going to serve us well."
But for one night, at least, there's still hope.
"We played a whole 60-minute game," defenseman Jaroslav Spacek said. "We didn't panic after they scored the first goal."
Jeff Finger put the Leafs ahead by beating Miller with a slap shot at 16:22 of the opening period. But that was the only shot to beat Miller.
"Ryan was huge for us," Pominville said. "He made some big saves. He's been huge for us all year and that's the type of goalie he is. He's an elite goalie and he kept us in there."
Pominville tied the game 1:50 into the second period with a power-play goal. Vanek gave the Sabres their first lead at 8:09 of the third when he deked Curtis Joseph one way and pulled the puck the other way to slip it into an open side of the net. Gaustad shoved a rebound behind the fallen Joseph to give the Sabres a two-goal lead.
"That's what we wanted, just to stay alive, stay in this and put the pressure on the other teams," Pominville said. "We have to look at our side of things and that's winning games and it starts with one and we've got to build off this."
The Sabres survived six Toronto power plays in the first two periods and took control in the third.
"We had some good flow going before we started taking the penalties in the second period," coach Lindy Ruff said. "That gave them some momentum.
"I thought in the third, when we stayed away from (penalties), we got some better flow and some better zone time and took advantage of a couple of situations."
The loss was the 352nd of Joseph's career, tying him with Gump Worsley for the most in NHL history. Of course, he also has 454 victories, fourth on the all-time list.
"There's too many good things in my life for me to even think about losses," Joseph said.
With Martin Gerber expected to start the season finale against Ottawa on Saturday, the 41-year-old Joseph probably started his last game for the Leafs.
Material from wire services was used in this report.