The Buffalo Sabres came to Toronto a desperate team, needing a victory to keep their flickering playoff hopes from sinking closer to oblivion.
And for a while it appeared the Sabres were up to the task, securing an early lead over the Toronto Maple Leafs while displaying plenty of dash and determination over the first 20 minutes at Scotiabank Arena on Monday night.
But the Leafs used a 10-minute offensive barrage in the second period to turn things around, scoring four times, and it was enough to help pave the way to a 5-3 win and sink the Sabres’ slender postseason hopes further.
The Sabres entered the game six points back of an NHL wild-card playoff spot and displayed better jump than the Leafs in the first period, when they were rewarded with a 1-0 lead on a power-play marker by Jack Eichel.
The Leafs awoke from their slumber in the second, scoring four times to wrest the momentum and take a 4-2 lead into the third when they were able to hang on for an entertaining win.
The Leafs were led – as usual – by their big guns, John Tavares and Auston Matthews, who began the second-period blitz scoring goals less than two minutes apart to lift Toronto into a 2-1 lead.
But Toronto also received a huge boost from their fourth line, centred by Frederik Gauthier, who scored his third goal of the season during that middle frame uprising and then assisted on Toronto’s fourth goal by linemate Tyler Ennis.
Trevor Moore, the third member of the line who was just promoted earlier in the day from the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, picked up an assist.
“They were huge for us tonight, probably our best line,” Matthews said about the production from the fourth unit.
Eichel notched two goals for the Sabres, including his second nine seconds into the third period that cut the Toronto lead to 4-3. Sam Reinhart added the other Buffalo marker.
The Sabres blitzed the Toronto end with regularity after that and created plenty of dangerous scoring chances, but Andersen was solid in picking up his 100th win as a Maple Leaf goaltender.
His best save came off the stick of Jason Pominville, who somehow failed to stuff the puck into the net from in close with Andersen sliding over to make a terrific block.
Late in the game, with Buffalo on the power play, Andersen revved up the joint when he did the splits to rob Rasmus Dahlin. Moments later, Kasperi Kapanen ended the suspense when he scored a shorthanded effort on a breakaway.
The primary topic of discussion heading into the game was the NHL trade deadline and what the Leafs would do to bolster a lineup that management believes is well primed for a lengthy playoff run. The Leafs did very little, as it turned out, plucking AHL prospect Nic Petan out of the ranks of the Winnipeg Jets for centre Par Lindholm, a fourth-line plugger for the Leafs with just one goal in 61 games this season.
Toronto called up forward Trevor Moore from the AHL’s Marlies to take Lindholm’s spot on the roster.
Toronto coach Mike Babcock, speaking to the media following the morning skate on Monday before the latest deal had been completed, said the players will all be happy to bid adieu to the trade deadline, as it can be a distraction
“I don’t think it gets in the way of your playing, but you think about it,” Babcock said. “There’s not one guy in that room that doesn’t want to be a Leaf.
“A few years ago, they were probably dying to get out of here, that’s not the case here now. They want to be here, they want to be part of it and they want to be a part of it moving ahead.”
The Leafs were without Nazem Kadri, who missed his third straight game against the Sabres after suffering a concussion.
Buffalo displayed better hops in the opening frame and skated away with a 1-0 lead on a power-play goal from Eichel, his 20th of the season, in the final minute. With the Leafs playing shorthanded after getting caught for too many men on the ice, Eichel was allowed to set up in the slot and he rifled a shot that beat Andersen to the stick side.
The Leafs made up for their offensive shortcomings in the second, striking for four goals in short order to assume a 4-2 lead and chase Buffalo starting goaltender Carter Hutton.
First it was Tavares, scoring his 35th on the power play off a deflection, at the 3 minute 20 second mark.
A little more than two minutes later, it was Matthews capitalizing after being left all alone beside the Buffalo net, scoring his 30th to give Toronto a 2-1 lead. The young centre has now tallied at least 30 goals in his first three seasons, the first Leaf to do that.
Matthews termed the accomplishment “humbling” on a franchise that has 100-plus years of history.
The scoring continued just 28 seconds later when Gauthier, a fourth-line stalwart, lifted a backhand past the beleaguered Hutton, who was yanked after that in favour of Linus Ullmark.
The Leafs continued to pour it on and it resulted in Ennis being sent in on a breakaway by Gauthier and his high shot beat Ullmark to bring the score to 4-1.
Reinhart stopped the bleeding, scoring while Buffalo was enjoying a two-man advantage to cut Toronto’s lead to 4-2 heading into the third.