By: David Alter
The Maple Leafs snapped a franchise-high 11-game home losing streak, as they put a dent into the Buffalo Sabres playoff hopes with a 4-3 victory.
Ben Scrivens, thrust into duty thanks to a knee injury to Jonas Gustavsson, made his first NHL start since November 20th. He showed no signs of big league rust making 29 saves to earn his first ever NHL win on home ice.
“This team was maybe a little bit fragile so I wanted to come in and make as many saves as I could” said Scrivens. “All the credit goes to these guys they’ve had a lot of pressure on them both internally and externally.”
The Maple Leafs were able to use special teams to their advantage.
In the first period, Toronto opened the scoring after Andrej Sekera whiffed on a pass from the blue-line, allowing Joey Crabb a breakaway of roughly 130 ft. He’d make no mistake putting it in top shelf on Sabres goalie Ryan Miller.
While dominating the special teams battle was huge for this Leafs team that has had little success in doing so lately, it was the level of compete that ultimately shone through.
“Overall what was better was the battle, the compete level” said Crabb. “All the way down to the last minute, we had to battle and everyone did a good job of that.”
Phil Kessel scored his career high 37th goal of the season. Kessel was on pace for well over 40 goals before the recent slide curbed everyone on the roster. That was evident for Maple Leafs Head Coach Randy Carlyle as well.
“It’d be really nice for Phil Kessel to get 40 goals,” said Carlyle. “That’s not putting pressure on him, just saying that’d be a nice number to get. With him, he’s got a skill-set that separates himself from others in the league. He can make something out of nothing and he’s dangerous player every time he steps on the ice.”
With three games remaining, Kessel would have to score an average of a goal per game in order to attain 40 goals. His goal tonight gave him five for the month, matching December and January as his least productive months. If five is the fewest you score in a month, that’s not half bad.
Kessel’s goal came on the power play, rounding out a solid special teams performance. Carlyle pointed out several occasions that winning the battle of special teams are crucial to winning games.
John-Michael snapped a seven-game goalless drought, while Matt Frattin scored what would hold-up as the game winner, his first in 12 games.
The win didn’t come easy. The Sabres (dog-tired from their game against the Penguins the night before) fought back to make the game interesting.
Drew Stafford’s goal with 2:45 to go in regulation had the Leafs on their heels a little bit. But in the final minute, Toronto continued to forecheck. They pushed deep in Buffalo’s zone, playing confident and with no fear. It was reminiscent of how this team played before their slide.
Joey Crabb’s short-handed goal was just the fifth man-disadvantage goal this season for the Leafs. The last time Toronto scored a short-handed goal was December 23rd. Back then, the Leafs improved to 18-13-4 and were sixth in the Eastern Conference. The Sabres were 11th. Amazing how fast things can turn.