Buffalo’s Owen Power, Jeff Skinner (middle) and Connor Clifton celebrate a goal in Thursday. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu

Sabres showcase emphatic response, annihilate Maple Leafs: ‘We took last game really personally’

BUFFALO – In the aftermath of the ugliest defeat of Don Granato’s tenure as Sabres coach, his players defended him more vigorously than they had their opponent that night.

But until they displayed more passion on the ice, showcased the pace and tenacity Granato demands, their words would carry some hollowness.

“We wanted to do more than just say we have his back, we wanted to go out there and prove it, and I think we did a pretty good job of that tonight,” Sabres captain Kyle Okposo said following Thursday’s 9-3 shellacking of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Fresh off Tuesday’s embarrassing 9-4 home loss to the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets, a game in which some frustrated fans chanted for Granato’s dismissal, the Sabres delivered an emphatic response against their fiercest rival.

“We took last game really personally, I think, on a bunch of different levels,” said Sabres winger Alex Tuch, who registered a career-high four assists. “I thought we owed one to ourselves, we owed one to the coaching staff, because they come in and work really hard for us each and every day.

“And there might’ve been disconnect and there might’ve been a couple issues here and there with how we were playing and what our game plan was and what our mentality was, but that doesn’t leave this room.”

Granato said nothing feels “better as a coach than to have your guys believe in you.”

“That means everything as a coach,” he said. “That means everything because I can tell you we have to push these guys. I’ve had lots and lots of players that don’t know how much you care about them because you have to push them.”

Incredibly, the Sabres became the 14th team in NHL history and the first since the Detroit Red Wings from Dec. 21 to 23, 1983 to score nine goals after allowing nine in their previous outing, according to NHL Stats.

In downing the Leafs for the sixth time in their last eight meetings, the Sabres did not flinch after grabbing an early lead and falling behind. Instead of wilting like they have during recent first periods, they roared back and buried them.

Some of the same fans who booed throughout Tuesday’s debacle and chanted got caught up the euphoria of the Sabres’ most entertaining win this season. By the second period, Sabres fans in the bipartisan sellout crowd of 19,070 began counting up the goals and demanding more.

“I still think we had a couple too many Leafs fans out there for my liking, to be honest, and we heard that in the beginning of the game,” Tuch said. “But we were able to quiet them down quickly.”

The Leafs rolled into town at the perfect time. The Sabres, having recently beaten the Vegas Golden Knights, Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, save their best for heavyweight opponents.

On Thursday, they pounced on the Leafs 2:27 into the contest, getting a goal from winger Jordan Greenway, who returned after missing nine games with an upper-body injury.

After goals by Auston Matthews and Max Domi put the Leafs up later in the period, defenseman Owen Power and winger Jeff Skinner, who returned after missing three games with an upper-body injury, restored the Sabres’ lead barely three minutes later.

They held it for the rest of the game.

“Definitely a point of emphasis just to forget things when they happen,” Okposo said of quickly regaining the lead. “… We cannot be a fragile group. We can’t be fragile when we make a mistake, when we get scored on because you have to know, you have to have an overriding sense that we are the good team, we are the better team, and I think tonight that we had a little bit of that.”

Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin scored a power-play goal early in the second period before Toronto’s Calle Jarnkrok scored short-handed.

Then the Sabres scored five unanswered goals.

Okposo tallied twice, including a short-handed breakaway, giving him eight goals in his last 15 games. Center Tage Thompson, who added two assists, and winger Jack Quinn also scored. Following Thompson’s goal, the Leafs yanked goalie Ilya Samsonov.

Quinn, who returned Tuesday from a torn Achilles tendon that had sidelined him all season, hadn’t scored since March 24.

“Quinny’s such a positive guy, he’s such a fun person to be around and he worked real hard to come back,” Okposo said. “… To see him get one in the back of the net was pretty cool.”

Sabres goalie Devon Levi made 24 saves.

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