A spirited third period ensured the Toronto Maple Leafs' playoff push is alive and well.
Mikhail Grabovski and Phil Kessel scored less than three minutes apart in the third period Saturday as the Maple Leafs defeated the Buffalo Sabres 4-3 in a game that was crucial to Toronto's post-season aspirations.
"That's a huge win for our team," said captain Dion Phaneuf. "It's a big character win. We knew what was on the line and I think it shows what kind of character we have in our (dressing) room."
It ended a three-game slide for the Leafs and got the team back within four points of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The gap would have widened to eight points had the Leafs failed to rally.
One of the keys to victory was finding a way to get under the skin of Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller. He's absolutely owned the Leafs during his NHL career—entering the night with a 24-9-0 record, 2.17 goals-against average and .931 save percentage versus Toronto—but seemed to get off his game a little while continually dealing with traffic in front.
It was a strategy straight out of the coach's playbook.
"It's written on the board: 'Get traffic in front of him, keep him deep, make him work,'" Leafs coach Ron Wilson. "The whole thing is you have to do it for 60 minutes because he's played so much he might be a little tired in the third period. I don't know if that was the case but getting the traffic there (helped)."
The Sabres didn't exactly see it the same way.
Kessel scored the game-winner at 6:36 of the third period with an innocent-looking shot that banked in off the skate of Buffalo defenceman Steve Montador. They were an extremely frustrated group before boarding a bus for the short trip home.
"They got lucky," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said of the Leafs. "(The) puck went off the skate, sometimes you've got to live with that."
Elsewhere in the NHL it was: Montreal 3, Pittsburgh 0; Vancouver 4, Calgary 3; Detroit 5, St. Louis 3; Atlanta 5, Philadelphia 4 (OT); New Jersey 3, N.Y. Islanders 2 (OT); Florida 4, Tampa Bay 3 (OT); Nashville 4, Colorado 2; Columbus 3, Carolina 2; and N.Y. Rangers 3, San Jose 2 (SO).
At Toronto, Clarke MacArthur and Tyler Bozak also had goals for the Maple Leafs (30-29-10).
Mike Weber, Jochen Hecht and Jordan Leopold replied for the Sabres (33-27-8), who went 4-2-1 during a seven-game road trip.
There was a heightened atmosphere at Air Canada Centre for the game, one a number of Leafs had labelled a must-win. The home team showed more jump than it had during its recent slide thanks in part to Wilson's decision to cancel Friday's practice.
"We were off yesterday and had lots of energy," said Grabovski.
After Weber and MacArthur traded goals in the first period, Bozak gave Toronto its first lead of the night just past the midway point of the game. Seconds after being denied on a breakaway, he took a pass from Kessel and beat Miller for just his third goal since Jan. 22.
The sophomore centre knows he needs to contribute more.
"I'm just trying to work hard," said Bozak. "Things haven't gone my way the whole year—a lot of chances that haven't gone in. You've got to stay positive.
"We're still right in this thing so you can't sulk and get down on yourself. We've got to do it as a team here."
The Sabres wrestled the momentum back before the end of the period. Hecht buried a rebound past James Reimer at 11:04 and Leopold beat him with a point shot on a power play at 15:31 to make it 3-2.
Like his teammates, the 22-year-old goaltender stood tall in the final period—denying Tomas Vanek and Brad Boyes from point-blank range after his team had surged ahead.
Reimer was appearing in his 13th straight games for the Leafs and has almost single-handedly resuscitated the team's playoff hopes. Wilson believes the rookie has given the team its best stretch of goaltending since he was hired in June 2008.
"Probably for sure, yeah," said Wilson. "A long stretch like this, you're always like: 'Is tonight the night where he's going to wear down a little bit?' And he's had a couple of games where he wasn't as sharp as he's been.
"You can't expect the goalie to be perfect every night."
At Pittsburgh, Carey Price made 26 saves for his eighth shutout of the season and 12th overall in Montreal's victory over the Penguins.
Tomas Plekanec, Travis Moen and Mike Cammalleri scored for Montreal. The Canadiens, two points behind fifth-place Boston in the Eastern Conference, have won six of their past seven games.
The Canadiens' five-game winning streak was broken with a 4-1 loss Thursday night in St. Louis, and the team is coping with the loss Tuesday night of Max Pacioretty, the winger who sustained a severe concussion and fractured vertebra from a hard hit by Boston's Zdeno Chara.
At Calgary, Daniel Sedin scored two goals and added an assist to push his NHL-leading points total to 89 in Vancouver's victory over the Flames.
With 37 goals, Sedin topped his previous career high of 36 in 2006-07.
Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows also scored for NHL-leading Vancouver, Christian Ehrhoff had three assists and Roberto Luongo made 20 saves. With the victory, the Canucks finished 5-0 on a trip.
Mikael Backlund, Matt Stajan and David Moss scored for Calgary.
At St. Louis, Pavel Datsyuk scored the go-ahead goal late in the third period, one night after netting the overtime winner, and Detroit bounced back to beat the Blues after squandering a two-goal lead.
Jimmy Howard earned his NHL-leading 17th road win for Detroit, 4-1 against the Blues. The Red Wings have won two straight after a season-worst four-game losing streak.
At Philadelphia, Ron Hainsey scored at 1:17 of overtime and Atlanta overcame a 3-0 third-period deficit and Ville Leino's first career hat trick to beat the Eastern Conference-leading Flyers.
Andrew Ladd tied it at 4-4 with 45 seconds left in regulation.
At Newark, N.J., Anssi Salmela scored his first goal of the season 3:09 into overtime for the Devils.
Salmela took a feed from Mattias Tedenby and drilled a shot past Al Montoya as the Devils improved to 22-3-2 in their last 27 games. New Jersey trailed 2-1 in the third period before rallying.
At Sunrise, Fla., Jason Garrison scored in overtime for the Panthers.
Vincent Levavalier and Simon Gagne scored in the third period for Tampa Bay to erase a 3-1 deficit, but Garrison's fourth goal of the season gave the Panthers their fourth win in five games against the Lightning.
At Nashville, Tenn., Joel Ward's unassisted goal in the second period helped Nashville as Colorado extended its winless streak to eight games.
Shea Weber and Matt Halischuk also scored, and Martin Erat had an empty-net goal and an assist. Pekka Rinne stopped 36 shots for the Predators, who won their second straight.
At Raleigh, N.C., Steve Mason made 29 saves and Columbus' penalty-killers turned back Carolina.
Derek MacKenzie scored twice and Samuel Pahlsson added a goal to help Columbus snap a seven-game losing streak (0-4-3). Jeff Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu scored for Carolina. The Hurricanes have lost four straight.
At San Jose, Calif., Brandon Dubinsky scored the winning goal for New York in the sixth round of the shootout after Wojtek Wolski kept the Rangers alive with a goal in the third round.
Henrik Lundqvist made 31 saves to help the Rangers move into seventh place alone in the Eastern Conference, two points ahead of Buffalo and four in front of ninth-place Carolina.