So long as Mats Sundin and Jeff O'Neill remain healthy, the Maple Leafs can compete with anyone - even the Eastern Conference-leading Buffalo Sabres.
O'Neill scored twice, both goals set up by Sundin, in a 4-2 win over Buffalo on Tuesday night, a game Toronto coach Paul Maurice described as his team's best of the season.
"That was a huge win for us based on what we're going through," said Maurice, referring to a lineup that featured almost as many American Hockey League players as it had bona fide NHLers.
"We don't have a lot of veterans in there right now, but the ones that we do played really well tonight," Maurice added. "This was our guttiest performance."
Alex Steen had a goal and assist, and Pavel Kubina also scored in a game the Maple Leafs never trailed. Sundin's two assists gave him 495 with Toronto, moving him into third on the team's career list, two ahead of former captain Dave Keon.
Toronto snapped a two-game losing skid and won on the road for only the third time in nine games (3-5-1). Among the players the Leafs were missing were forwards Michael Peca and Darcy Tucker, and defenceman Ian White, who hurt his shoulder in a 4-1 loss to Carolina on Tuesday.
Chris Drury and Thomas Vanek scored for a Sabres team that committed too many errors and was out-shot 15-4 in the second period and 28-24 overall.
The only excuse the Sabres have is that they were playing on consecutive nights, following a 2-1 win at Chicago. Yet, that doesn't entirely explain how a team featuring three all-star game starters could come out so flat against a limping opponent.
"We'd like to have that one back," Drury said. "We had a little bit of energy at the beginning but, as the game went on, we got drained a little bit."
Coach Lindy Ruff was more to the point in saying: "We had a lot of brain cramps tonight."
That was particularly apparent on the Leafs' opening goal 21 seconds into the second period, when Sundin intercepted Toni Lydman's weak clearing attempt. Sundin, at the left circle, sent a pass across to O'Neill, who snapped it in the open side.
Steen put the Leafs ahead for good 5:20 into the third period, and 2½ minutes after Drury tied it at 2 with a power-play goal.
Carlo Colaiacovo, who had two assists, started the play by holding his ground at the right point, preventing the Sabres from clearing their zone. Colaiacovo got off a shot from the right circle and Steen converted the rebound, snapping a shot in that glanced off the glove of goaltender Martin Biron.
The goal extended Steen's point streak to four games, in which he has five goals and four assists.
O'Neill, set up by Sundin's centring pass on a transition rush, then scored his second goal five minutes later to seal the win.
"Tonight we saw a lot of good signs," Sundin said. "We have a lot of guys injured, but a lot of the young guys played well. And we need the veteran guys that are here to keep playing well."
The Sabres (31-10-3) continue to struggle against Canadian teams based in their Northeast Division. Of Buffalo's 10 losses that have come in regulation, seven have been against Canadian division opponents, including Toronto twice.
"They were a little more desperate than we were," Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere said. "It was one of those nights. We have to forget about it and move on."
Notes: Centre Travis Green made his Maple Leafs' debut a day after being claimed off waivers from Anaheim. This is Green's second stint with Toronto after playing with the team from 2001-03. ... The Sabres went 2-for-6 with the man-advantage, the first time they've scored two power-play goals in 10 games. ... The Leafs opened a stretch in which they play nine of their next 11 on the road.