TORONTO – This embarrassing Buffalo Sabres’ loss feels like a killer, one that could ultimately extinguish the playoffs hopes that seemed so promising less than two days ago.
Against the reeling, 14th-place Maple Leafs – a team that had dropped 11 consecutive games inside the Air Canada Centre and began Saturday on an awful 5-17-3 run – the Sabres fell 4-3 in their arch rival’s first home win since Feb. 6.
Ouch. If the ninth-place Sabres miss the postseason, remember this setback.
With the eighth-place Washington Capitals’ 3-2 shootout win over the Montreal Canadiens, they lead the Sabres by two points (88-86) for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot with three games remaining for each club.
“We made it really tough on ourselves,” said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, whose team fell out of eighth place following a 5-3 home loss Friday to the Pittsburgh Penguins, ending a five-game winning streak.
How tough? Ruff aimed his apparent glances at the out-of-town scoreboard higher, “for the big fellow to help out,” he joked.
Saturday’s loss wasn’t a fluke. The Leafs, who endured “Let’s go Blue Jays” chants during a 7-1 shellacking from the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday, clearly had their pride wounded.
Joey Crabb opened the scoring at 9:32 short-handed, capitalizing on Andrej Sekera’s turnover at the blue line and beating Ryan Miller on a long breakaway.
“We let them in the game right off the bat,” Ruff said. “The play by Sekera was a killer. We had the crowd out of it. The shots were 5, 6-2, and the first play your goalie has to face is a breakaway.
“You’re short-handed as it is. You make mistakes like that it’s tough to rebound.”
Tyler Ennis tied it in the second period, but Phil Kessel’s power-play score minutes later put the Leafs up for good.
Then, with .7 seconds remaining in the period, John-Michael Liles’s body knocked the puck past Miller as he crashed the crease.
That seized more momentum before the capacity crowd of 19,446 fans.
“He was well aware of what he could be doing with that much time on the clock,” Miller said. “He was in the crease. Why not go for it?”
Ennis added: “Anytime a goal goes in with .7 left in the period it’s a little deflating.”
Ruff had warned the Sabres the Leafs would be hungry and fearless. This was their Super Bowl.
“For them,” Sabres captain Jason Pominville said, “it was probably the best time to get back on track. … (There’s) nothing more satisfying for them to get us out of this one.”
Ville Leino made it 3-2 before Matt Frattin restored the two-goal lead. Drew Stafford’s 20th tally at 17:15 made it a one-goal game again.
Third-string Leafs goalie Ben Scrivens, who allowed four goals Friday to the Sabres’ AHL affiliate in Rochester, stopped Jordan Leopold’s slap shot with a second left to preserve new coach Randy Carlyle’s first ACC win.
Playing without three injured defensemen didn’t help the Sabres.
In a surprising bit of news, a foot injury sidelined Tyler Myers. Ruff said Myers, who kept playing after blocking Paul Martin’s shot late Friday, is day-to-day.
Meanwhile, Mike Weber, who was crunched against the boards by Matt Cooke, also sat. Christian Ehrhoff (knee) missed his second game.
The Sabres summoned T.J. Brennan and Brayden McNabb from Rochester. The rookies played together much of the night, skating 11:56 and 14:32.
“We know where we’re at,” Ruff said. “With a depleted defense, we put ourselves in a real tough spot. We have to play a cleaner game than that. To try to chase a game with two of our more mobile defensemen out of the lineup … it’s tough to chase.”
When some regular defenders missed time earlier this season and youngsters filled in, the Sabres imploded.
“We have to deal with it better this time than we did last time,” Ruff prior to the game. “I think we’re a little deeper up front. We may have to score a little more. We’re capable of that.
“I think our forwards have to pick up a little bit of the slack. We need to control more of the play and take a little pressure off our D in these situations.”
They couldn’t Saturday.