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Sabres feed off of rivalry's energy in win over Leafs

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

Being the longest-tenured member of the Buffalo Sabres, Tyler Ennis may be as well-equipped as anyone to discuss the team's rivalry with the Toronto Maple Leafs. It's one that exists in the stands as much as it does on the ice; Toronto fans travel down the QEW to cheer for their team, usually providing a back-and-forth that trickles down onto the ice.

That was as true as ever on Saturday night, with the Maple Leafs coming into town looking to protect their small playoff cushion and the Sabres seeking to play spoiler. Buffalo got the job done, winning 5-2, and a game that began with a mixed crowd cheering back and forth ended with a standing ovation from the Sabres fans with little blue and white left in the building to speak of. 

It was the kind of game that left Ennis smiling when he was asked about it afterward. 

"I think it was just fun," he said. "I think there was a lot of energy in the rink right from the start, a lot of emotion and those are fun games. We haven't had a lot of those games in a while. I think we really felt that energy. I think our fans were really loud and gave us a boost and I thought we played with a lot of jump and a lot of energy the whole game."

Video: Eichel, Ennis push Sabres past Maple Leafs, 5-2

It was the type of game you'd expect between rivals, from the energy in the stands to the two teams trading the first five goals, a trend that ended with both teams' young superstars scoring one after the other. Auston Matthews scored for Toronto to tie the game a mere 2:22 into the second period; Jack Eichel answered with the game-winning goal on the power play 25 seconds later.

Eichel's goal was the first of a three-point night for him, all of which came in the second period. He earned an assist on Dmitry Kulikov's power-play goal at the 5:59 mark of the period and scored another goal of his own less than eight minutes after that. 

Ryan O'Reilly (1+1), Kulikov (1+1), Ennis (0+2) and Kyle Okposo (0+2) also had multi-point outings for the Sabres with two points each, while Evander Kane also scored a goal. Robin Lehner was stellar again with a 32-save performance in net. 

"It's always fun to play in a building that's loud," Lehner said. "Today was very loud and we don't want them to win. We play them one more time here, we want to win that one too. We don't wish them any success."

Okposo, who was one of four players returning to the Sabres lineup from injury along with Kulikov, Justin Falk and William Carrier, spoke in the morning about how this game would be the type that the young Sabres still need to learn how to win. The Maple Leafs were coming in with points in their last five games and still had everything to lose as they continue to fight for a playoff spot. They were going to be desperate.

The Sabres rose to the occasion right from the start, with O'Reilly netting the first goal 7:05 into the contest. They also showed poise in their ability to respond. When Connor Brown scored on a rush play shortly after O'Reilly's goal, Kane was able to regain the lead for the Sabres with this goal 15 seconds later: 

Video: TOR@BUF: Kane sweeps rebound past AndersenVideo: EICHEL: Postgame

Matthews' goal was a quick reminder of the struggles that Buffalo has faced in second periods, but the Sabres followed it up with one of their best periods of the season. All three goals - the two from Eichel and one from Kulikov - came on one-time shots that flew by Toronto goalie Curtis McElhinney, who had replaced Frederik Andersen to begin the period. 

Video: TOR@BUF: Eichel nets PPG with rocket from the circle

 The Sabres also outshot Toronto 16-11 in the period and killed off one of three penalties on a perfect night for the penalty kill. Toronto had begun the night with the League's top power play; by the end of it, Buffalo had reclaimed the top spot.

Eichel was even-keel when speaking after the game, but you could see his emotion on the ice:

Tweet from @BuffaloSabres: Jack is all of us.

"This is our building so obviously we want to play well here," Eichel said. "I think there was a little extra emotion in our game tonight, a little extra motivation and it's good to see. We always want to play well against them, it's obviously a rival and nice to beat them."

And, as Ennis said, it makes for good fun - even if it means dealing with Maple Leafs fans.

"Yeah, that's the fun part," Ennis said with grin. "That's the goal. The goal is to keep them quiet, silence them a little bit, and these Toronto games are always fun.

Kulikov's big night

In what's been a trying first season as a Sabre for Kulikov, this game was certainly a highlight. It was the 500th NHL game for the 26 year old, and his first multi-point outing for Buffalo. He also skated a team-high 23:55 with Rasmus Ristolainen serving the first game of a three-game suspension. 

Video: TOR@BUF: Kulikov scores PPG in 500th NHL game

"I think Dmitry's looked really good coming back from his injury," Bylsma said. "The last two days of practice have been his most aggressive and physical and the way he can play and I thought he stepped right into the game and showed that for us tonight. It was a big task, with Risto out of the lineup he was a top pairing playing against their good players."

"He makes a great play to me, puts it in my wheelhouse for a goal and then lets a laser go," Eichel said. "We know the type of player that he can be and the skill that he has and that shot's a real weapon."


Up next

Brian Gionta is expected to play his 1,000th NHL game when the Sabres host another division rival in the Florida Panthers at KeyBank Center on Monday night. Buffalo is 1-0-1 against Florida this season, with this being the third of four matchups between the two teams.

Coverage on Monday begins at 6:30 p.m. with the Tops Pregame Show on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops at 7 p.m.

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