With a seven-game road trip staring them in the face, Friday night's visit from the Toronto Maple Leafs
was a must-win game as the struggling Buffalo Sabres
-- and they won it, though not easily.
Buffalo blew an early two-goal lead, but Jason Pominville
put the Sabres ahead to stay with 5:47 left in the second period and they held off the Leafs 3-2 at First Niagara Center.
The Sabres (19-19-5) entered the night 11th in the East -- and even with the win they remained five points behind Washington for the final playoff berth. But with their next seven games on the road, they knew this was a win they had to have.
"It wasn't our best game, so it was nice to be able to get that one," Pominville said. "It was fun to see guys keep their composure. We're not going through the stretch we would want, but we were playing well."
and Paul Gaustad
had first-period goals for the Sabres, who snapped a three-game slide and won for just the third time in seven games (3-7-2). Ryan Miller
stopped 24 shots as the Sabres earned a split of a home-and-home series after losing 2-0 in Toronto on Tuesday.
The win came hours after owner Terry Pegula reaffirmed his faith in the team. The first-year owner blamed the Sabres' struggles on a rash of injuries, and expressed confidence his team is not far from bouncing back.
"It's nice of him to put that belief in us," Miller said. "We've got a lot more work to pay him back."
and Joey Crabb
had first-period goals for the Leafs, who had won four in a row and missed a chance to get to eight games over .500 for the first time since ending 2006-07 with a 40-31-11 mark. They are 1-8-1 in their last 10 visits to Buffalo.
Pominville's goal came on a slick play from Thomas, who chased down a loose puck at the right boards and drove towards the net before flipping a pass through the crease past two defenders and onto Pominville's stick for the putaway.
"I knew the whole time he was going to make the play," he said. "It just landed right on my stick. I just had to settle it down and put it away. It was one of those plays not many guys can make."
The goal was the captain's 15th of the season. Pominville and Vanek -- Buffalo's only consistent offensive player -- have combined to score 12 of the Sabres' 34 goals in the last 16 games.
"That's why they're staying together," coach Lindy Ruff said. "They know where each other are going to be most of the time. They look for those types of plays."
The Sabres got off to a quick start, scoring twice in less than four minutes. Ellis' backhand centering pass from behind the net hit the skate of defenseman Cody Franson
and slipped past Jonas Gustavsson
1:05 after the opening faceoff. Gaustad scored at 3:53 with a snap shot from the right circle that went through the legs of defenseman Carl Gunnarsson
, hit Gustavsson and fell into the net.
"A couple of bad bounces early put us behind the eight-ball," Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf
said. "We fought, we just didn't have enough to even it up in the third."
The Maple Leafs tied in on goals 2:46 apart. Grabovski picked up a rocket-like carom off the end boards after Like Schenn missed the net and one-timed it past Miller at 14:06. Crabb took a pass from Grabovski and ripped it past Miller from the slot at 16:52 following a turnover by defenseman Mike Weber
, who fell down on the play.
Miller made two key stops in the final nine minutes, including a right pad stop on Franson's shot from the right circle. The Leafs also hit two posts in a 22-second span in the middle period
"We didn't have much puck luck," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. "We didn't get enough shots from the middle of the rink to scramble them up. And that's something that let us down. But all in all, I thought we played well."
Material from team media and wire services was used in this report