For the first time in a long while, the Buffalo Sabres had fun on the ice Saturday night.
Zemgus Girgensons tallied twice and was one of five different Sabres to score as Buffalo topped the Toronto Maple Leafs 6-2 on home ice at First Niagara Center.
In an arena filled with Maple Leafs fans, the Sabres were able to pounce on Toronto early and held on. The Sabres got goals from five different players – Girgensons, Tyler Ennis, Drew Stafford, Matt Moulson and Tyler Myers – for the first time since Feb. 26, 2014, a 5-4 overtime win against Boston.
“It was a huge character win for us,” Myers said. “Any time they seemed to get a little bit of life, we answered right back pretty quick. It’s something we have to try to make a habit moving forward. We’ve struggled a little bit and tonight was a huge stepping stone. If we can continue to roll all four lines and get them playing like that, we’ll have the energy to play a full 60.”
Michal Neuvirth made 32 saves for Buffalo. His counterpart, James Reimer, stopped 28 shots.
With the win, the Sabres improved to 14-1-1 in their last 16 home games against the Maple Leafs, including wins in their last four.
The Sabres used special teams play to their advantage in the first period. Ennis scored on the power play with 4:20 left in the first when he scored on a rebound from two Stafford shots down low.
Then with 1:27 remaining, Brian Flynn chased down a loose puck on the power play and chipped it over Reimer and into the corner. Holding onto the puck as Reimer scrambled back into the net, Flynn found Zemgus Girgensons racing up the ice and sent the puck over to him. Girgensons worked for his shot and hit the empty net to make it 2-0.
The goal was Girgensons’ fifth of the season, his second-career shorthanded goal and first-career goal against Toronto. He added his second of the night on a breakaway for the Sabres’ sixth goal 4:42 into the third.
Buffalo came into the second period and was able to add to their lead when Stafford tallied 7:10 in. He wristed a shot from the blue line and past Reimer to give the Sabres their first three-goal lead of the season.
Toronto answered with 1:19 remaining with a tip-in goal from David Clarkson but Buffalo was very quick to respond. Ennis set up Moulson 16 seconds later on a 2-on-1 with a beautiful pass that Moulson was able to redirect in.
Phil Kessel closed out the second-period scoring to make it 4-2 with 18.8 seconds to play.
Although Toronto did answer right away, Sabres coach Ted Nolan saw that goal from Moulson as one the team really needed. They skated into the third with a two-goal lead and regained their three-goal edge when Myers crashed the net and scored 1:10 into the third.
“That was awesome. We haven’t done that in the past and that was a really big pushback after they had some momentum,” Ennis said. “We continued it after that and we played hard. That’s our best win in a long, long time.”
Buffalo had gone 0-4-1 in their past five games and had been outscored 23-8 in those games. With all that going against them going in, the result was obviously a welcome one.
Saturday’s win marked the first time Buffalo scored six goals in a game since Jan. 31, 2013, a 7-4 win over Boston.
“It was nice to see the smiles on the players’ faces for sure,” Nolan said, “especially when it got late in the third and you knew the win was there.”
Girgensons has points in four of the past five games and has really started to shine offensively since being put in the middle on a line with Ennis and Moulson. The group has been together since Monday’s practice and through three games now.
Though only 20, Girgensons’ maturity has impressed his linemates.
“We’ve got some good chemistry on our line,” Ennis said. “He’s an extremely hard worker. He’s got a lot of talent. He plays like he’s 28 years old. It’s surprising when you realize how young he is because he’s got a veteran presence with how hard he works and how he comes to the rink every day. He’s a fun kid to play with and we have to keep it going.”
Ennis (2+3), Moulson (1+4), Stafford (1+3) are now on three-game point streaks.
Moulson now has 19 points (13+6) in his last 19 games against Toronto, including 14 (9+5) in his last 11. With two points, Stafford now has nine points (4+5) in his last 11 games. He leads all Sabres with 30 career points (13+17) against the Maple Leafs.
BACK IN THE SADDLE AGAIN
Sabres Hall-of-Fame play-by-play announcer Rick Jeanneret returned to the booth for the first time this season to call the first period. He’s been on the sidelines battling throat cancer, but announced on Nov. 7 that he is – at the moment – cancer-free.
His excitement was evident before the game even began.
“I don’t think I can express properly how delighted I am sitting here in this seat right now,” Jeanneret said on the broadcast just before the opening faceoff. “All I can say is no matter what happens here on in, I feel like a winner.”
Buffalo outscored Toronto 2-0 in the first, allowing RJ to call two big Buffalo goals.
The Sabres continue their three-game homestand on Tuesday when the San Jose Sharks roll into Buffalo.
Girgensons hopes they can carry the momentum and build on the good habits they displayed in their next game.
“We’ve had a tough season and it’s tough when you don’t win games, but tonight was absolutely different in how we played,” he said. “It was 10 times better than what we’ve done. We have to keep improving.”