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Moments after the final buzzer Saturday night, the door to the Toronto Maple Leafs' management box flew open, and GM Brian Burke and vice-president of hockey operations Dave Poulin burst out, grabbing hands briefly in celebration as they headed for the elevator down to the dressing room.

It may have only been Game 69 on the schedule, but beating the Buffalo Sabres 4-3 was a big win for Burke, one that kept his team in the playoff hunt - albeit on the fringe - to fight another day.

This was one game the Leafs had to win, and after falling behind 3-2 while being out shot 32-19 after two periods, that looked unlikely.

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But coach Ron Wilson delivered a few words in the intermission about this being a chance to show what they were worth, the Leafs appeared to listen and came out flying, scoring two quick goals (Mikhail Grabovski and Phil Kessel) and then hanging on thanks to a couple nice saves by rookie James Reimer, who had to make 39 in all.

Toronto was 3-26-3 when trailing after two periods coming into the game.

"We didn't have much option," captain Dion Phaneuf said of the third-period rally, calling it "the biggest period" he's been part of in Toronto. "We knew where we were, we knew where they were in the standings and we knew what points were on the line. There was no other way. We talked about it [in the intermission] we said we had to throw everything we had at them and we did.

"It's a huge character win, shows what kind of group that we have and feels really good."

The Leafs gained two points on both the Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes, who also lost in regulation on Saturday, and are now two back of ninth and four back of seventh and eighth. (With the New York Rangers set to potentially earn points later in the night in San Jose.)

Had Toronto lost in regulation, it would have fallen to 12th in the Eastern Conference behind the Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey Devils, who are making unlikely playoff bids of their own.

Given the gravity of the game, Wilson said afterwards that he wasn't happy with his team's play through two periods.

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"We got out shot 20-12 in the second period, we didn't get in shooting lanes and if we're going to make the playoffs and we talk about being committed and urgent, that's not exactly the way to show it," Wilson said, explaining what his message was with 20 minutes to play. "So we have a period to show that we're serious when we talk about trying to make the playoffs.

"We came out gunning and got them on their heels for the most part."

Toronto got goals from three of its top guns in the game, with Clarke MacArthur blasting his 20th past Sabres netminder Ryan Miller to tie the game at one in the first period and Grabovski and Kessel completing the rally in the third with their 27th and 28th goals as both approach 30 on the year.

Tyler Bozak's also got on the board, a rare occurrence for long stretches this season, giving Toronto its first lead of the game midway through the second, which allowed the Leafs a little cushion when Buffalo came charging back with two goals of its own.

Relieved to contribute offensively, Bozak said after the game that winning in regulation was something the team had talked about, given making up ground on Buffalo will likely be pivotal to having a hope of staying in the race.

"It was eight points back or four," Bozak said of the standings had they won or lost in regulation. "We didn't want it to go to overtime. We knew we had to win this one to keep our chances alive."

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"We believe," Grabovski said. "I believe in my teammates, believe in myself. We can't stop right now. We just work hard every shift."

What's going to be interesting down the stretch is how the pace picks up in the East, as the Devils are 22-3-2 in their past 27 games and now entering the conversation and the Sabres had been hot of late as well. Both teams also have a game in hand on Toronto.

In all, there are five or six teams in the hunt for the final two spots in the conference, and it'll quite likely be the clubs that can reel off 10 or 11 wins in their final 13 or 14 games that make it.

Even with the win Saturday, Toronto will have be terrific the rest of the way. A 10-3-0 record gets them to 90 points, which is where the cutoff appears to be headed.

Or higher.

"We've been through a lot, all season," Wilson said. "Had our ups and downs. But you can't give up. It's hard in this league, if you look around, I wouldn't even say that you have 5-per-cent chance of coming back in the third period, whether you're a team in our situation or a top team in the league.

"It doesn't happen very often. Tonight, we just had to do it."

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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