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Leafs Ride the Poni Express

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs

TORONTO (CP) -- Alexei Ponikarovsky is the Toronto Maple Leafs' good luck charm.

The six-foot-four Ukrainian forward has scored in nine games this season, and his team has won all nine.

"It's a mystery to me,'' he said after starring in a 4-3 shootout victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night. "Everybody asks me about that, and I don't know what to say.''

Ponikarovsky and Mats Sundin put pucks behind Martin Biron in the shootout, while Ed Belfour stopped Ales Kotalik and Thomas Vanek.

Ponikarovsky, Bryan McCabe and Darcy Tucker scored in regulation time for the Leafs, who with a fourth consecutive victory closed to within seven points of the Sabres in the Northeast Division.

"It's great when the coach gives you the chance (to play in key situations),'' said Ponikarovsky. "You just try to help or not do something wrong.

"Tonight things worked out very good for me and for the team.''

Tim Connolly, Henrik Tallinder and Jason Pominville scored for the Sabres, who fell one short of tying the NHL record of 10 straight road wins. The loss was only Buffalo's third in its last 17 games.

It was end-to-end mayhem in overtime. The Sabres had come on strong to force extra time.

"I really thought in the last 40 minutes we controlled the majority of the play and got a good point,'' said coach Lindy Ruff. "When you get a good point on the road, it's pretty well a job well done.''

Toronto led 2-1 after one period.

Ponikarovsky started things off with his league-leading fourth short-handed goal, and 10th overall.

Ruff had right-winger Kotalik playing the point on the power play, and it was Kotalik who Ponikarovsky outskated after a Matt Stajan pass sprung him into the clear. In alone on Biron, Ponikarovsky pulled the puck to his backhand and lifted it into the net at 14:00.

"When you're on the power play, you're not thinking defence, you're trying to score goals,'' said Stajan. "Sometimes (the other team) has forwards playing the point and if there's a turnover they might give up on the play.''

Biron appeared to be screened when McCabe glided into the circle to the goalie's right and slapped the puck into the far top corner of the net for his 14th goal _ most by any NHL defenceman _ at 15:47.

Connolly shoved in a rebound at 17:14 as he was being pushed to the ice by Ken Klee, and he was on his behind when he raised his stick to celebrate his eighth of the season.

Toronto led 3-2 after two periods, and both goals were scored with Buffalo's Derek Roy off for hooking.

Tallinder tied it with a short-handed goal at 4:37. The six-foot-three Swedish defenceman got a rebound in the circle to Belfour's right and waited for Belfour to make the first move before skating around him and shooting into the vacated net from a difficult angle.

Toronto regained the lead on the power play when Tucker relayed a cross-ice Kyle Wellwood pass through a kneeling Biron's legs for his team-best 16th goal at 5:55.

Pominville tied it 3-3 with a power-play goal at 8:07 of the third period. He slapped a drive from the top of the circle to the left of Belfour, who dropped to his knees. The puck squirted through Belfour's leg pads. He had to know immediately that he should have stopped it. If he'd stayed on his feet, the puck probably would have bounced off the pads.

Regardless, the Leafs would win it in the shootout. Their last three wins have all been cliffhangers.

"It's nice to have won each of them,'' said coach Pat Quinn. "They haven't been easy games.

"You saw an overtime game the other night and now a shootout. So every one of the games was very tight. It's helped us, hopefully, learn that if you're going to win games in this business you have to pay attention to detail.''

The Sabres have been the hottest team in the NHL despite injuries, and a capacity crowd in excess of 19,000 saw why. Ruff's crew is super quick, checks religiously, and bounces back quickly after relinquishing a goal. They've won six games when trailing after two periods.

"There's no quit in our team,'' said Ruff. "Check our record, the number of games we've won when we've been down by a goal.

"You've got to give the guys credit. The number of guys we've had go out of the lineup at key times and the number of guys who have stepped up ... you've got to give every guy in that room credit for battling through adversity and doing it every night.''

Notes: Buffalo had a 30-28 shots edge through overtime ... Buffalo was 1-for-4 and Toronto 1-for-5 on power plays ... The Leafs were without Eric Lindros (torn wrist ligament), Jason Allison (broken finger), Nik Antropov (sprained knee), Alexander Steen (dislocated thumb) and Carlo Colaiacovo (sprained wrist) ... The Sabres were without Daniel Briere (abdominal strain), J.P. Dumont (hernia surgery), Taylor Pyatt (broken wrist) and Dmitri Kalinin (broken finger) ... Buffalo plays at home Friday against Atlanta ... Toronto's next game is at New Jersey on Saturday (CBC, 7 p.m. ET).


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