The Toronto Maple Leafs were down a few good men and playing in a place where they had won just once in their last 11 trips down the QEW highway.
And their leading scorer from last year Phil Kessel? He was goalless yet again, for the sixth time in six games to start the year.
That was the unlikely stage for Matt Frattin to be the hero, something he pulled off in dramatic fashion in netting the winning goal with just 1.5 seconds left in a 4-3 overtime victory over the Buffalo Sabres.
Frattin finished the game with two goals, giving him five points in three games this season after he didn’t even make the Leafs out of training camp.
He was part of Toronto’s secondary offence that came from unlikely sources, something that will continue to be needed with Kessel unable to find the back of the net and a couple others in the injury ward.
“I looked up ice and there was two or three [Sabres] changing,” Frattin said of his charge down the ice in the dying seconds, when it appeared Buffalo had let up. “There was still time on the clock so you still have time to score. You got to go for it.”
“You have to feel fortunate when you get the extra point when you can score with under two seconds left in the game,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. “It was a great individual effort.”
Minus Joffrey Lupul, Clarke MacArthur, Jake Gardiner and Mike Komisarek with a variety of quirky ailments, the Leafs lineup had looked even thinner than usual coming in.
It was Lupul breaking his forearm, however, that opened the door for Frattin to be recalled from the minors last week. Despite being cast as a depth player, Frattin has produced remarkably well on the scoresheet.
Especially considering his modest 16 minutes of ice time on Tuesday was well up from his first two games.
“When you do things like this, it forces you to play him,” Carlyle said. “It’s as simple as that.”
But it was Komisarek’s bizarre eye injury may have had the biggest impact on the game. Had he been able to play, Cody Franson was a candidate to inexplicably spend his fourth game munching popcorn in the press box instead of chipping in with a goal and an assist.
(As an aside: Carlyle wouldn’t specify what happened to his big, expensive defensive defenceman either, saying only that sometime during Monday’s practice, Komisarek ended up with fibreglass in his eye, needed a suture on the eyeball and had done something “crazy” that he regretted. Well, okay then.)
So, with two top six forwards out of the lineup, Toronto’s top three lines picked up almost all the ice time, as Carlyle left his fourth line on the bench and leaned on Kessel, in particular, for a season-high 26 minutes.
Even so, it was checker Jay McClement who opened the scoring 10 minutes in with his first as a Leaf, taking a rebound off a Nazem Kadri shot and depositing it past Ryan Miller.
(Score that as Kadri’s sixth point in six games, as he continues to lead the team in scoring.)
Sabres veteran Jason Pominville tied the game five minutes later, threading the puck through a mess of bodies after Mike Brown went to the box for batting the puck with his glove off a faceoff -- one of the truncated season’s few new rules.
The Leafs were then embarrassed in their own end to start the second, as a wide open Andrej Sekera snuck in past Kessel and Carl Gunnarsson unnoticed and put a backhand up over Toronto netminder James Reimer to make it 2-1.
Then came Frattin’s first, which tied the game just a minute later, as he deftly tapped in a rebound after a 2-on-1 with Franson.
Franson put the Leafs ahead shortly thereafter, with the pinpoint snap shot from the point he seems to have perfected, finding a hole on Miller glove side.
That Leafs lead – like many of late – didn’t last long.
Sabres rookie Mikhail Grigorenko, on the same day he learned he was sticking in the NHL on his draft year, netted the equalizer with his first ever goal and was immediately pulled to the ice when an exuberant teammate jumped on him mid-celebration.
“That was the moment of great enthusiasm in the game when he scored,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “It was great to see.”
The goal also set up a hairy finale, with the Sabres putting another 11 shots on goal in the third and through overtime but being unable to beat Reimer for the winner.
That left the door open a crack for Frattin to cap things off, as he raced down the wing and snuck the winner under Miller’s arm before the final buzzer.
Because time had wound down, the officials had to review the play, but Frattin said his teammates were sure there was at least a couple seconds left and encouraged him to go off to the dressing room.
Miller, meanwhile, was dejected over allowing the opening with a shootout so close.
“I let the guys down on that one,” he said. “I just made a stupid decision.”
“That’s what we need obviously,” McClement said of the Leafs unlikely goal scorers in the game.
“A couple of our big guys were out tonight so it’s great to see everybody step up. Some of us are moving up in the lineup so you try and take advantage of those minutes.”