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Leafs keep playoff hopes alive by beating Sabres

by Juha Mikkola

TORONTO -- The Toronto Maple Leafs' playoff hopes are still flickering.

Toronto blew leads of 2-0 and 3-1 before Mikhail Grabovski finished off a pass from Phil Kessel at 13:35 of the second period Tuesday night to give the Leafs a 4-3 victory against Buffalo -- the team the Maple Leafs are trying to catch for the last playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.

Rookie James Reimer stopped 28 shots as the 10th-place Leafs ended Buffalo's three-game winning streak and moved within five points of the Sabres, who host the seventh-place New York Rangers on Wednesday. Buffalo also has a game in hand on the Leafs.

But for one night, the Leafs could savor the fact that they got two points on a night when going home empty-handed could have ended their postseason hopes.

"It is almost a playoff atmosphere; it feels like we are in the playoffs already, but obviously we are not," said rookie forward Nazem Kadri, who had a pair of assists. "We wanted to stay in the run and get these two points and win in regulation, (so this win) was big for us."

With the sellout crowd of 19,483 roaring from the opening faceoff, the Leafs jumped in front quickly when Dion Phaneuf blasted a long slap shot past Ryan Miller just 1:34 into the game.

"Every game is a must-win. I don't think it is a secret to anyone," Phaneuf said. "We are taking it one game at a time but we know what we have to do. That is win the games we have left."

The Leafs built on the momentum from Phaneuf's goal with strong play that pinned the Sabres into their own end for long stretches. The hard work eventually paid off, with Darryl Boyce converting a feed by Kadri at 18:46. But the Sabres sent a chill through the crowd with 12 seconds left in the period when Tomas Vanek scored his 27th goal of the season, finishing off a 2-on-1 break with Jochen Hecht.

Former Sabre Clarke MacArthur got the fans back on their feet when he fired a pass from Kadri through the five-hole on Miller at 5:06 of the middle period for a 3-1 lead.

"It's always nice to score against your old team, I'm not going to lie," MacArthur said.

But Toronto then paid the price for some sloppy defensive play, allowing Buffalo to score twice in 30 seconds.

Jason Pominville made it 3-2 at 6:25 as he scored his 20th of the season, reaching the 20-goal mark for the fifth consecutive season. Not long after the ensuing faceoff, Toronto defenseman Carl Gunnarsson gave away the puck in front of his own net -- and Rob Niedermayer took advantage by beating Reimer along the ice at 6:55 for his fifth of the season.

With the game now tied 3-3, Leafs' coach Ron Wilson called his timeout to let his team regroup. The move paid off when Grabovski scored to put Toronto back in front.

"We took that time and (Wilson) settled everyone down quickly," MacArthur said. "I felt we were playing good hockey … and it was good enough to win tonight."

After allowing four goals in the first two periods, Miller made several acrobatic stops in the third to give the Sabres a chance to get even. Reimer and the Leafs survived a late 6-on-4 Buffalo power play for the win. He finished with 28 saves to improve to 18-8-4 in his first NHL season.

"A couple of unfortunate bounces (and) I would like to have at least one of those back, (but) … you can't let negative thoughts creep into your head," Reimer said. "As a team we collected ourselves (after the timeout), and knew we were playing well."

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff was disappointed with the loss.

"It was really a see-saw (battle), where we had some pockets of energy and then they had some," Ruff said. "Our Connolly line was having a good night, but the Boyes line when Hecht went down struggled a little bit and they got momentum when they were on. "

The win for Toronto evened the season series with the Sabres at three wins apiece. Toronto travels to Boston to face the Bruins on Thursday, then visits Ottawa on Saturday.

Reimer, for one, feels his team should make the postseason, even if the odds are against the Leafs.

"It would be a crying shame if we didn't make the playoffs, he said, "because we could do some real damage if we got in."

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