It had been 796 days since the Toronto Maple Leafs had won in Buffalo, dating back to December of 2008, and it took a terrific individual effort from an unlikely source to end the futility stretch.
The Leafs snuck out of the city where they often can’t buy a win on Wednesday night with a hard-fought 2-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres, getting a highlight reel winner from fourth-liner Joey Crabb on the penalty kill.
The goal was Crabb’s first of the season and first since March of 2009, a span nearly as long as Toronto’s drought in Buffalo.
“I don’t know, I blacked out there for a little bit,” Crabb joked of his goal, as his teammates cracked jokes around him. “I was pretty happy with that, get that off my back and it was a big goal to help the team out.”
“Everybody chipped in,” coach Ron Wilson said. “It was good.”
The Leafs’ second win in a row moved them to within four points of the Sabres and just six away from the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Leafs winger Phil Kessel opened the game’s scoring, giving Toronto a 1-0 lead early in the second period, with Crabb making it 2-0 midway through the third.
Buffalo then brought the score back to 2-1 minutes later when Paul Gaustad scored on a bad angle shot under the arm of rookie netminder James Reimer, but the Sabres couldn’t force overtime.
Buffalo fell to 29-10-1 against the Leafs since the 2004-05 lockout.
Phil the Thrill
Kessel’s goal was his third in the past two games, a good sign for Toronto’s often struggling offence. The Leafs’ top gun now appears to be heating up again after going 14 games without a goal going into a 4-3 win Tuesday over the Boston Bruins.
With his 22nd goal of the year, Kessel is back on pace for more than 30 after dipping off that figure during his recent drought, meaning he should hit the 30-goal mark for the third year in a row.
Part of the reason for his success has been last week’s acquisition of Joffrey Lupul, who despite having a similar, offence-first style to Kessel has meshed well with him in their two games together.
Jiggy goes down
Leafs netminder Jean-Sébastien Giguère had to leave the game after the first period, becoming the third Leafs netminder to go down in a week.
Giguère, who has missed 18 games with a recurring groin injury already this season, was uncertain if the latest issue is related to his previous problems. He joins Jonas Gustasvsson (heart) and Jussi Rynnas (broken finger) on the injured list.
“Frustrating,” Giguère said. “I thought I was getting beyond the injury.”
Giguère’s absence may mean general manager Brian Burke has to acquire a netminder instead of trading one away, as it may be too much to ask of Reimer to carry the full load. Fifth-stringer Ben Scrivens will likely be called up to join the NHL club at practice Thursday.
While his numbers haven’t been stellar this season, Giguère has emerged as a positive mentor to Toronto’s young goalies. If early retirement comes in the near future, he’ll make a fine goalie coach somewhere.
February has been a real struggle for Sabres netminder Ryan Miller, including allowing seven goals in his previous start in a 7-6 overtime loss to the New York Islanders last Sunday.
Miller has, however, been a real Leafs killer his entire career, carrying a 24-8-0 record, 2.18 goals-against average and .931 save percentage against Toronto into the game. He was again solid on Wednesday, matching the Leafs netminders save for save but for the winning goal.
The Vézina Trophy winner a year ago, Miller has begun to receive criticism from the Buffalo press for his play this season. His slide from a .929 save percentage to a .910 is one major reason the Sabres are out of a playoff spot and not all that far ahead of the Leafs in the standings.