Hosting the Sabres for the second time in just six days, the Leafs won the latest chapter in the Battle of the QEW by a 5-2 final Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena.
LEAFS STRIKE FIRST ON TAVARES' EARLY GOAL, BUT SABRES QUICKLY ANSWER BACK
After a one-game road trip to Long Island Thursday, the Maple Leafs were back at Scotiabank Arena Saturday and looking to get back in the win column after falling 6-1 to the Islanders. And for the second consecutive game, Toronto got on the scoresheet first with an early first period goal.
On this occasion, centre John Tavares was the individual who provided the first burst of offence, battling hard in front of Buffalo's net, dislodging the puck from the side of netminder Linus Ullmark, and quickly batting it past the goal line for his team-best 37th goal of the season at 4:20 of the opening period:
Video: BUF@TOR: Tavares cleans up rebound to open scoring
Tavares' goal sent Leafs Nation into a fit of delirium, but 100 seconds later, the Sabres - who lost to Toronto 5-3 at Scotiabank Arena on Monday - answered back when winger Jason Pominville battled traffic in front of the Buds' net before pushing the puck past goaltender Frederik Andersen for his 15th of the year at the 6:00 mark. As an Atlantic Division rival, the Sabres always have passion when they take on the Leafs, and even an early goal from Tavares wasn't going to be enough to win this game.
BUFFALO TAKES LEAD SHORTLY AFTER TYING GAME, BUT RIELLY EVENS SCORE IN FINAL MINUTE OF FIRST
After tying the game, the Sabres wasted little time in taking their first lead of the night, as forward Conor Sheary got off a shot just inside Toronto's blueline that evaded Andersen's grasp and made it 2-1 for the visitors at 7:34 of the first.
And although the Leafs outshot Buffalo 16-10 in the opening frame, it looked as if Toronto would enter the first intermission trailing the Sabres - that is, until defenceman Morgan Rielly's point shot late in the first made its way through traffic and past Ullmark for Rielly's 16th goal of the season at 19:40 of the period:
Video: BUF@TOR: Rielly beats Ullmark through traffic
Centre Auston Matthews recorded the primary assist on Rielly's goal to give him 30 helpers this year, setting a new career high in assists (Matthews had 29 assists in each of his first two NHL seasons). And the Leafs wiped the slate clean heading into the second.
NEW LEAF PETAN FINISHES OFF FINE FORECHECK FROM MOORE, PUTS LEAFS BACK IN FRONT; ZAITSEV EXTENDS TORONTO'S LEAD LATE IN SECOND
Saturday's game was the debut of winger Nic Petan in a Leafs uniform; acquired from Winnipeg at the NHL's trade deadline Monday, Petan skated on a line with centre Frederik Gauthier and winger Trevor Moore - and Petan made a terrific first impression, scoring his first NHL goal this season at 15:02 of the second to put the Leafs back in the lead:
Video: BUF@TOR: Petan hammers one-timer for first with Leafs
Petan's goal was the sixth of his NHL career in 109 regular-season games, and he owed a tip of the cap for it to Moore, who made a great forecheck behind Buffalo's goal line before slickly feeding the puck to Petan for the scoring sequence. And, thankfully for Leafs fans, that wasn't Toronto's final goal of the period: D-man Nikita Zaitsev netted his third goal of the year - a little more than four minutes after Petan's goal - by firing the puck from along the wall deep in the Sabres' zone and having it deflect off Buffalo blueliner Brandon Montour's skate and into the net:
Video: BUF@TOR: Zaitsev scores off skate to double lead
Zaitsev's goal - at 19:05 of the second - gave the Buds a little insurance and confidence heading into the final regulation frame. It also was the second point of the game for both Tavares and Marner. Both players would add points in the third to make it a three-point game for each.)
SABRES PRESS IN THIRD FRAME, BUT ANDERSEN STAYS STRONG AS LEAFS GET BACK TO WIN COLUMN
The Sabres will take on Toronto once more before the regular season ends - a game that will take place in Buffalo March 20 - but they showed in the third period they weren't about to hand the Leafs two points: the visitors outshot the Buds 17-2 through the first 15 minutes of the third period, but Andersen was stellar between the pipes in the final two frames, turning aside 35 of 37 Sabres shots on the night to win his 31st game of the season - and Toronto got one more goal (an empty-netter from Marner for his 23rd of the year) to wrap up the scoring.
With Saturday's win, Toronto's record improved to 40-21-4. The Leafs now head out on a three-game Western Canadian road trip that takes them to Calgary Monday, Vancouver Wednesday, and Edmonton Saturday. The Buds are an impressive 19-9-3 on the road, and they'll face serious tests throughout the trip, so they'll need to be focused and sharp if they're to build a new win streak.