TORONTO – Johan Larsson had been waiting for his big break. It may have finally come Wednesday night.
At practice on Monday, Larsson found himself centering the Buffalo Sabres top line. Coach Ted Nolan promoted him because he thought Larsson had been showing more consistency in his game.
The move paid off Wednesday as that line, consisting of Larsson at center and Matt Moulson and Tyler Ennis on the wings, combined for all three goals in Buffalo’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre.
Each member of the line had a goal and two assists. It marked the first multi-point game of Larsson’s career.
Larsson also scored Saturday night in Washington but Wednesday’s game was his first opportunity to play on with Ennis and Moulson.
“You don’t get chances like this very often and he knows that. He’s making the most of it,” Ennis said. “He’s been playing awesome. He works super hard. He’s a competitive kid. I think you could see his two-way play tonight. I thought he was the best player on the ice tonight.”
The Sabres have been looking for their call-ups from the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League to seize the opportunities presented to them with now only 15 games remaining in the season. Nolan was pleased to see his top line produce like it did and gave credit to the veterans on the team who have seen numerous changes to the lineup this season.
“Larsson played well but that’s why I have a lot of respect for Tyler Ennis and Matty Moulson and [Brian] Gionta and guys like that,” Nolan said. “They get kids from the American Hockey League coming up and they’re not complaining. They’re playing as hard as they can and those young kids are getting the benefit of it.”
Larsson was acquired in a trade with Minnesota at the 2013 NHL Trade Deadline that also brought Matt Hackett, a first-round pick – which turned out to be rookie defenseman Nikita Zadorov – and a second-round pick to Buffalo for Jason Pominville and a fourth-round pick.
He’s known for a two-way game and getting under opponents’ skin and while he has 37 points in (14+23) in 41 games with the Amerks this year, he hadn’t had a strong offensive showing in the NHL until Wednesday.
“I just tried to play my game. They’re really good and we kind of read each other pretty good out there,” Larsson said. “I felt like I had to take care of defensive zone first and go from there.”
Anders Lindback made 31 saves for Buffalo and made some big stops along the way, including a highlight reel-worthy glove save on Leo Komarov in overtime.
Buffalo took the first lead of the game with Larsson’s third goal of the season. In a broken 2-on-1 play, Jonathan Bernier ended up out of position and Larsson, skating with Ennis, was able to put the puck into a virtually empty net from a tough angle along the goal line.
However, the Maple Leafs tied it with 5:51 remaining in the first on a goal by Brandon Kozun and then Komanov gave Toronto the lead 21 seconds later.
Ennis scored soon after, with 3:58 left in the first, to even things up once again. The Sabres and Maple Leafs went into the second period tied, but Buffalo held an 11-8 edge in shots.
They were able to widen the shot gap in the second, but more importantly, they took the lead with 8:10 remaining. On a rush with Moulson, Larsson dished a backhand pass over to him where he finished for his 10th goal of the year.
Penalty trouble has cost the Sabres points this season and Wednesday proved to be no different. The Maple Leafs went on three power plays in the third period, scoring on their final opportunity with 3:25 left in regulation to tie the game 3-3.
Tyler Bozak tipped in a shot from Phil Kessel and then went on to score the eventual winner in the shootout.
“That’s the only chance we have going forward here is if we outwork the opposition,” Nolan said. “We’ve got to be disciplined. We’ve got to stay out of the box and if we do that, we have a good chance. For the vast majority of this game, I thought we did that, except right at the end, we took a very bad penalty.”
Buffalo is off until Saturday when they host the New York Rangers at First Niagara Center. The Tops Game Night pregame show begins at 6:30 p.m. on MSG-B with puck drop scheduled for 7 p.m. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550.
“In the end, we didn’t get two points, but we can build off moments in that game where we were playing well,” Moulson said.