BUFFALO, N.Y. - The Buffalo Sabres barely needed to break a sweat in their return to HSBC Arena.
Thomas Vanek scored three goals and Ryan Miller stopped all 16 shots he faced Wednesday as the Sabres hammered the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-0.
Playing its first game on home ice in 18 days, Buffalo was hardly even challenged by the listless Leafs. The Sabres can certainly expect a lot more competition when the Montreal Canadiens pay a visit on Friday night.
Tim Connolly and Drew Stafford each added a goal and an assist for Buffalo (27-20-5).
The Maple Leafs were shut out for the fourth time this season and saw their record drop to 19-24-9.
Toronto gave rookie goaltender Justin Pogge the third start of his NHL career and basically hung him out to dry. He was a little deep in his net when Connolly opened the scoring by tipping home a Craig Rivet pass at 2:23 of the first period, but this loss was far from his fault.
In fact, the 22-year-old goalie kept the score a little bit respectable.
Toronto was playing for the second time in as many nights and simply had no life. The visitors were guilty of countless turnovers and missed defensive assignments, not to mention all the power plays they handed Buffalo throughout the game.
Stafford made it 2-0 for the Sabres at 12:52 of the first period with a nice individual effort. He used a nifty stickhandling move to beat defenceman Mike Van Ryn before lifting the puck high over Pogge's glove.
Another Sabres goal early in the second period essentially sealed the final outcome.
Vanek got his 30th of the season on a power play after picking up the rebound from a Connolly shot and sweeping the puck around Pogge at 2:37.
And the Sabres kept coming.
While the scoreboard hardly seemed flattering to the Leafs netminder, it didn't really reflect his performance. Pogge twice stopped Vanek on clean breaks and added nice saves on Derek Roy and Ales Kotalik to keep the score from being 8-0 or worse.
The most telling stat of the night could be seen at the second intermission. To that point, Toronto had only taken one more shot on goal (nine) than it had minor penalties (eight).
The Leafs showed some early jump in the third period before Vanek scored his second of the night. He was sent in clear once again and beat Pogge with a slapshot at 5:36.
At the other end, you had to wonder how Miller was staying awake.
He only had to make a handful of saves that could be labelled challenging to earn his career-best fifth shutout of the season. Matt Stajan actually put the puck behind him at one point, but the goal was disallowed because the Leafs forward was penalized for interference.
Less than 20 seconds later, Vanek completed the hat trick with a goal from in-close at 9:13.
The easy win couldn't have come at much better time for the Sabres. They spent Tuesday travelling across the continent from California and are at the start of an important stretch.
After hosting the Montreal Canadiens on Friday night, they have a home-and-home series with the Ottawa Senators. The Sabres are hoping to make a move up the Eastern Conference standings in the coming week.
"It's a close race, we know that," said Roy. "Every point counts. We're obviously watching the standings to see who is catching up. These are big games for us.
"If we want to make up some ground, we've got to win these division games."
So far, so good.
Notes: Connolly has eight points in his last five games ... Pogge has allowed 13 goals against during his three NHL starts ... Buffalo has already played 10 road games in 2009, logging 18,723 kilometres in travel ... Jeremy Williams returned to Toronto's lineup after missing 14 games with a shoulder injury ... Mikhail Grabovski was a healthy scratch for the first time this season ... Vanek has only missed one game during his four-year NHL career - he was a healthy scratch in Toronto on April 3, 2006.