Sabres take lead midway through first frame, add to it in final minute before intermission. In the Leafs' recent stretch of quality play, it's usually Toronto who jumps out to grab the first lead of the game. However, after a relatively evenly-matched first half of the first period Tuesday, Buffalo got on the scoresheet first when winger Kyle Okposo took advantage of a puck-clearing miscue by Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen and scored his 13th goal of the season at the at 10:16 mark.
The Buds traded chances with the Sabres for the remainder of the frame and finished the period tied in shots with nine apiece, but a late rush from the visitors was capped off by winger Evander Kane firing a slap shot past Andersen with 33 seconds left before the first intermission and registered his 12th of the year. That gave Buffalo a 2-0 advantage heading into the middle frame, and made the Leafs' challenge to get back into the contest that much more difficult.
Komarov, Kadri work quickly in middle frame to cut Buffalo's lead in half. In addition to being down on the scoreboard, Toronto found themselves without the services of Morgan Rielly for the second period and the remainder of the game after the workhorse defenceman suffered a lower body injury early in the first frame. But that didn't result in the Leafs wilting in the least; to the contrary, they began the second by applying pressure in the Sabres' zone, and were rewarded for it when centre Nazem Kadri's pass toward the net was tipped home by winger Leo Komarov for his eighth goal of the season just 32 seconds into the frame.
Komarov's goal was his third in his past seven games, and Kadri's assist was his ninth point in his past eight games. The two veterans are familiar with one another and play a robust physical style that not only gets under the opposition's collective skin, but also leads to the generation of offence.
Video: BUF@TOR: Martin sneaks puck through from tough angle
Martin ties things up, Matthews gives Toronto the lead in quick burst of Leafs offence. This year's edition of the Leafs have made a name for themselves in part due to their explosive abilities with the puck, and Leafs Nation saw another example in a 1:17 span of the second period: it began when winger Matt Martin shot the puck from the corner boards near Buffalo's goal line, and it trickled past netminder Robin Lehner at the 8:28 mark to give Martin his second goal of the year and even the score a two goals apiece.
Less than a minute-and-a-half later, Toronto took its first lead of the night when winger Zach Hyman corralled the puck behind the Sabres' net, brought it out toward the front of Lehner and passed it to linemate Auston Matthews, who snapped a shot over Lehner's right shoulder to make it 3-2 for the Leafs. The goal was Matthews' team-leading 22nd of the season and it chased Lehner to the bench in favour of netminder Anders Nilsson.
Video: BUF@TOR: van Riemsdyk chips puck over Nilsson for PPG
Leafs' stellar power play doesn't get an opportunity till late in third, but makes most of it. The Leafs entered the game with the NHL's second-most-potent power play unit (at a stellar 23.8 percent efficiency level), but it didn't get a chance to show what it could do until Sabres defenceman Zach Bogosian was called for holding on winger Connor Brown at 12:48 of the third period. Still, Toronto's offensive special team wasted little time in making Buffalo pay for it, as winger James van Riemsdyk grabbed the puck at the side of the Sabres' net to Nilsson's left and picked the top corner at a nearly-impossible angle for his 16th goal of the season and a 4-2 Leafs lead.
Leaving aside the incredible skill van Riemsdyk displayed in connecting on such a pinpoint shot, the scoring play provided insurance the Leafs would wind up needing: Buffalo pulled within one goal on winger William Carrier's fourth of the year with 2:23 left in regulation, but Andersen and his teammates weren't overwhelmed by the Sabres' final push and Toronto secured its third straight win while boosting its overall record to 21-14-8.
In Rielly's absence, Gardiner and Hunwick step up. With Rielly out of the lineup for most of the night, head coach Mike Babcock had to lean on other members of Toronto's defence corps - in particular, Jake Gardiner and Matt Hunwick. Gardiner logged a team-high 29:24 of ice time Tuesday, while Hunwick registered 27:32 - season-highs for both players.
While it's obvious the Leafs want Rielly back in the lineup as soon as possible, all NHL teams understand injuries are part of the challenge of an 82-game regular season, and depth and support matters. Toronto got that support against the Sabres, and they can now aim to extend their win streak Thursday night at the ACC against the New York Rangers.