TORONTO – No, it wasn’t quite a piano off Alex Tuch’s back. The Sabres winger had scored this season before his two third-period goals Saturday secured a 6-4 win over the Maple Leafs. He said he believes he had been skating well.
Piano’s too heavy for the expression.
“Monkey more than piano,” said Tuch, bringing the weight he was carrying early this season down about 700 pounds.
Fresh off a breakout 36-goal campaign, Tuch hadn’t been his normal self for three weeks, and his struggles had been wearing on him. Having scored one goal in 11 games entering the night, he rarely looked like the first-line power forward he has developed into during his two years in Buffalo.
That’s why Saturday’s performance in Scotiabank Arena was so significant.
Tuch, 27, scored the go-ahead goal at 12:48, deflecting defenseman Rasmus Dahlin’s shot by goalie Joseph Woll. Then at 18:54, Tuch blocked a shot, chipped it by two Leafs and beat them to the puck to score an empty-net goal.
In a span of 6:06, he scored more goals than he had all season.
“It was the first night you got a feeling of Alex Tuch finally starting to be Alex Tuch, finally getting to his game and asserting some dominance in moments,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “He’s going the right direction so we certainly look forward to him getting back to that.”
Tuch, who played at right wing beside his regular linemates, center Tage Thompson and Jeff Skinner, after a week apart, said he had been focusing too much on scoring.
“Tonight, I just tried to go out and just get some shots on net,” said Tuch, who pumped five shots on goal and played 21 minutes, 38 seconds, both season-highs.
Tuch wasn’t the only player who showcased some of his best before the crowd of 18,902 fans in Scotiabank Arena. A night after the Sabres looked wretched in a 5-1 home loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, they bounced back, grabbing four leads and never flinching as the Leafs roared back.
“They were dialed in,” Granato said. “They were focused. The feeling on the bench with those guys was they were going to do it. They were determined to get back out and get after it and it worked out.”
Tuch said: “We didn’t even think about it. We just said, ‘hey, let’s just keep going, let’s keep playing. It was next line up, next line up.”
Granato said the effort “was a reflection of a lot of anger” leftover from Friday.
“I’m not speaking just for myself,” he said. “The room took it to heart. They were disappointed to be below their standard and they rose to it tonight.”
Eleven Sabres recorded at least one point. Only two – Tuch and winger JJ Peterka, who scored an early power-play goal – registered more than one.
Thompson scored a nifty short-handed goal on a short breakaway to give Buffalo its first lead 6:28 into the second period. After superstar Auston Matthews scored the first of his three goals at 11:22, Skinner restored the lead 34 seconds later, unleashing a slap shot from the left circle after grabbing defenseman Ryan Johnson’s stretch pass. Winger Jordan Greenway scored the Sabres’ other goal.
The Sabres recalled Johnson, 22, from the Rochester Americans earlier in the day, and he skated 8 minutes, 20 seconds in his NHL debut.
“I was just thankful for the opportunity,” said Johnson, the 31st overall pick in 2019. “I thought it was so cool.”
The Sabres faced the Leafs without two of their top players: defenseman Mattias Samuelsson and center Dylan Cozens.
Samuelsson’s lower-body injury won’t sideline him long-term. The Sabres placed him on injured reserve, so he will miss at least one week.
“We got good news … but he’s going to be out for a little bit,” Granato said.
Meanwhile, Cozens, who fought Garnet Hathaway late in Friday’s loss, has an undisclosed injury.
Granato said the Sabres received “very positive news” about Cozens, who stayed in Buffalo.
“Today he felt pretty close to normal if not normal,” he said. “I don’t have the final on it but we were texting back and forth during the day. I did talk to him on the phone quick. He sounds great.”
With Cozens out and Johnson up, the Sabres dressed 11 forwards and seven defensemen.
The Sabres scratched rookie wingers Brandon Biro and Lukas Rousek. Meanwhile, defenseman Jacob Bryson, center Tyson Jost and winger Victor Olofsson moved into the lineup.
Bryson skated 6 minutes, 27 seconds.
“Samuelsson is a high-, high-minute guy, especially in this game,” Granato said. “It just gave us more options to read as this game went on because of the absence of Samuelsson. That’s just a big, big void.”
Sabres goalie Devon Levi looked sharp in his first outing since Oct. 19, making 25 saves, including five on an early power play.
“He was good,” Granato said. “That’s a team that puts pucks to the net and bodies to the net fast, especially (on) the power play. They don’t waste any time getting it to the net with guys crashing. He dealt with a lot of traffic and he was, I thought, very well prepared for it. He was key.”