TORONTO – Realistically, if the Buffalo Sabres couldn’t defeat the Maple Leafs on Monday, their faint playoff hopes were likely over.
They had been reeling, and the same team that briefly grabbed the Eastern Conference’s second wild card spot late last month fell seven points behind as it lost four straight games and six of its last seven.
The Sabres must go on a late-season run, and in a hurry. Well, Monday’s 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the Leafs, a win buoyed by two goals from winger Alex Tuch in his return, has the potential to ignite them.
Down 2-0 early in the second period, they roared back to stun the Leafs before a crowd of 18,688 fans at Scotiabank Arena.
Tuch tied the game 3:39 into the third period before center Dylan Cozens put the Sabres up 3-2 at 9:39. Tuch’s power-play goal at 11:19, his 30th this season, added some insurance.
“The chatter on the bench, there was no emotion, no extra wasted energy anywhere,” coach Don Granato said of the Sabres overcoming an early deficit. “They were dialed in. This group knows they can score. We’re trying to sell that other side to them and believe in that confidence.”
That other side, of course, is defense. Suddenly, the Sabres, who gave up 10 goals Thursday, have started defending well. They allowed just two goals in Saturday afternoon’s overtime loss to the New York Rangers.
So in their last two games, they’ve allowed as many goals as they did to the Dallas Stars in about a 10-minute stretch late in Thursday’s embarrassing loss.
“We’ve made defending a greater focal point for us,” Granato said. “I think our guys recognized tonight ways they could impact it more and more as the game went along. The first was build that foundation of defending, especially in this building.”
While Tuch’s performance will receive most of the attention, the defense tandem of rookie Owen Power, who had two assists, and Henri Jokiharju enjoyed a terrific night. Jokiharju played a season-high 27 minutes.
“It was Jokiharju’s best game in a long time,” Granato said. “He was very, very effective in helping us win. And Owen was Owen. He does not play like a 20-year-old player. He plays like a veteran and it showed tonight.”
The Sabres, like so many recent outings, looked finished early.
Leafs star Auston Matthews opened the scoring 1:11 into the second period, beating Sabres goalie Craig Anderson for the 14th time in his 17th career game against the veteran. Calle Jarnkrok made it 2-0 on the Leafs’ next shot at 4:13.
At that point, the Leafs had a 15-4 shot advantage. Then the Sabres took over, outshooting them 16-0 to close the period.
Rookie winger Jack Quinn’s goal 14:58 into the second period got the Sabres going.
After the Sabres went up 3-2, Tuch connected on linemate Jeff Skinner’s pass in the slot to hit the 30-goal mark for the first time and seal the contest.
Following the game, Skinner gave him his milestone puck with a special message.
“What a pass by Skinny,” Tuch said. “He actually wrote it on the puck and he gave it to me. In quotes it says, ‘What a pass.’”
Tuch hadn’t played since Feb. 24, the night the Sabres moved into the wild card spot for about a day. They went 2-5-1 as he recovered from a lower-body injury.
It took time for him to get going – “The first five, 10 minutes were a little tiring getting legs back under me,” he said – but as the game progressed, he started looking like his usual self beside Skinner and center Tage Thompson.
“Timing and things, I thought it took him a little bit to get into that, into a rhythm,” Granato said. “Then I thought the three of them looked in sync at somewhere about the halfway point of that game. You could see they were starting to take things over, specifically upon possession.”
Granato said Tuch, who played 19 minutes, 27 seconds, “has a lot more in him.”
“He’s a fun player to work with with such a high capacity,” he said. “There’s some times and some shifts where he dominates and you don’t even know if he broke a sweat. It’s that effortless.”
Thompson said of Tuch: “I’m just excited to see where he can go next.”
The win, just the Sabres’ second this month, moved them within five points of the second wild card spot.
William Nylander got the Leafs to within one goal late.
Anderson and Leafs goalie Matt Murray each made 25 saves. In the third period, Anderson stopped Michael Bunting and John Tavares on a two-on-zero.