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Toronto Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel, right, celebrates his goal with James van Riemsdyk against the Buffalo Sabres during second period NHL hockey action in Toronto, Friday December 27, 2013. (MARK BLINCH/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel, right, celebrates his goal with James van Riemsdyk against the Buffalo Sabres during second period NHL hockey action in Toronto, Friday December 27, 2013. (MARK BLINCH/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Leafs recover from early lapse to beat Sabres in shootout Add to ...

This was a new low in a season that has contained quite a few lately, an embarrassing sequence where the last-place team in the NHL jumped out to an early lead.

Already down 1-0, the Toronto Maple Leafs coughed up a second goal to Buffalo Sabres tough guy John Scott, who swatted in his second career tally in the 200th game of a career spent primarily on the bench.

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Less than eight minutes into the night, the home crowd was booing.

On the bench, the head coach was stewing.

And another Leafs loss – their 13th in the last 17 games, no less – was brewing.

Instead, what happened Friday night was a weird, wild comeback, with Toronto thoroughly dominating the second period after an awful first and then hanging on for dear life before escaping with a 4-3 shootout win.

This was not how any coach would have drawn it up, not with another blown lead, this time with 25 seconds to play and the captain in the penalty box.

But it was two points.

“We were like two different hockey clubs,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. “We self-inflicted a lot of the things that happened to us in the first period.”

Regardless of the opponent and the way it went down, the win was important. The Leafs have been dropping points haphazardly for weeks and weeks, winning just three games in regulation (and eight overall) in their last 25, a slide that had already included two losses to a Buffalo team that’s won only 10 times all year.

Another humiliating defeat – with Scott scoring a key goal that led to the Sabres bench erupting in laughter and cheers – could have been devastating for morale, especially with the fan base already starting to turn on Carlyle.

(Consider the beleaguered coach’s Boxing Day run-in with one member of Leafs Nation at a Swiss Chalet, where his pursuit of a half-chicken dinner was interrupted by a “you better get those Leafs going” chiding that alerted the entire restaurant to his presence.)  

Perhaps it was Carlyle’s first intermission speech that turned things around because after getting outshot, outhustled and thoroughly outplayed the first 20 minutes, the Leafs came out of the first intermission a team possessed.

Long stretches of even strength play looked like Toronto’s power plays, as Sabres netminder Ryan Miller was peppered with 17 shots (to just five for the visitors) and uncharacteristically allowed three goals in an eight minute span as the Leafs first line came to life.

Jake Gardiner scored first, quickly followed by tallies from Peter Holland and Phil Kessel.  

“He was just very stern in what he wanted us to change and how he wanted us to do it,” defenceman Cody Franson said of Carlyle’s message. “Our group’s typically pretty responsive.”

The third period was then a typical Leafs adventure, culminating in Sabres captain Steve Ott crashing the crease and tying the game with Dion Phaneuf in the penalty box and half a minute left in regulation.

That set up yet another shootout – a franchise record fourth in a row for Toronto – where Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul was the only one who found the back of the net.

“We’d rather give our goalies a break and try and win in regulation,” Franson said. “That’s one of the things we’re focusing on – trying to close out games where we have a lead.”

“Obviously they can go either way in the shootouts,” added Kessel, who had two points, including a pretty go-ahead goal on the power play that made it 3-2 late in the second. “We were fortunate to get an extra point tonight.”

The victory may have come against a Buffalo team that is on pace for one of the lowest point totals in recent NHL history, but the reality is that under new coach Ted Nolan, the Sabres have also been playing much better hockey of late.

They entered Friday’s tilt with a 5-4-2 record in their last 11 games and with some budding confidence despite their struggles to score and a bout of the flu that had decimated their pre-Christmas roster.

So when Matt Moulson opened the game with his 13th of the season – only the eighth time all year Buffalo has scored first – and Scott recorded his Halley’s Comet-like goal 52 seconds later, it appeared to be part of a growing trend.  

For both teams.

Instead, the Leafs finally showed some mettle when they were down before giving the lead up again, somehow getting two points in the end after it had looked like they were headed for none.

It was one game, and it was Buffalo, but at this point, with the Winter Classic just days away from putting them under the hockey world’s microscope, Toronto needs what it can get.

Even if the primary way they seem to be winning these days is the skills competition.

“We’ll take what we can get,” Franson said. “We know that that’s not a full 60 minute win… but there’s no point in dwelling on the negatives when you win. We’re aware that there’s always room for improvement – and in that game for sure – but we’re happy we won.”

“I have lots of sleepless nights, no matter if we're winning or losing,” Carlyle said afterward, sounding much less pleased than his players. “I think the stress level goes up in games like this.”

 

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