James van Riemsdyk had at least one point on his stick with 44 seconds left.
With plenty of net to shoot at, the Toronto Maple Leafs winger-turned-centre would’ve scored had it not been for Buffalo Sabres defenceman Christian Ehrhoff getting in the way. Van Riemsdyk was left to shake his head as offensive production continued to desert the Leafs in a 3-1 loss Friday night at First Niagara Center.
“That was a heck of a play by him. He made a good read and sacrificed his body for it,” van Riemsdyk said. “I guess we are not getting those bounces right now, but we’ve got to keep fighting for it.”
The Leafs did plenty of fighting on an emotional night in Buffalo that marked the start of the Pat LaFontaine era as president of hockey operations and Ted Nolan’s return as coach after a 16-year break. They outshot an opponent for just the third time all season and the first time since Oct. 5, but Marcus Foligno’s goal stood up as the game-winner.
Coach Randy Carlyle and goaltender Jonathan Bernier pointed to losing the special-teams battle as the reason for the loss. Steve Ott scored on the power play for the Sabres, while the Leafs went 0-for-3 to fall to 2-for-12 on the power play in their past five games.
It’s no coincidence they’re 1-3 in that time and that the one victory came in a shootout, but there’s more to these offensive woes. The Leafs have just four goals in their past four games, and just two at even strength after Trevor Smith scored in Buffalo.
“We’re just not getting the results,” Carlyle said. “We’ve had chances, we had glorious opportunities. It’s just that right now we’re squeezing the sticks or we’re getting hit in the shaft or players making a big stop.”
The biggest stop came when Ehrhoff got in the way of van Riemsdyk’s shot, which could’ve been his first since moving to centre after Dave Bolland’s injury in Vancouver on Nov. 2. Tyler Bozak’s long-standing hamstring injury already tested the Leafs’ depth down the middle, and Nazem Kadri’s three-game suspension for elbowing Minnesota Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom compounded the problem.
Smith, called up from the AHL’s Marlies to replace Kadri in the lineup, scored his second goal of the season on his fifth shot in the second period. It wasn’t the prettiest goal, but it was something.
“I just tried to get it off as quick as I can,” Smith said. “I think it hit a D-man in front and went in, but we’ll take ‘em where we can get ‘em.”
The Leafs will take it, but they’d also benefit from their top offensive players scoring. Joffrey Lupul, Mason Raymond and Phil Kessel each scored once in the previous three games, but it has proven to be not nearly enough.
“It’s a long season, there’s ebbs and flows a bit,” van Riemsdyk said. “We’re going to keep with the same approach: just getting a lot of pucks to the net. We’re getting some good chances, we’ve just got to start burying them.”
Meanwhile, the Leafs have been counting on their goaltending to keep them in games. The crossbar helped Bernier a bit as he struggled to track the puck.
“It was a tough game for me,” said Bernier, who made 24 saves on 26 shots. “They tipped a lot of pucks, especially in the first, and they had a lot of presence up front. They played well. They worked really hard and they kept it simple.”
Perhaps that could serve as a blueprint for the Leafs, starting Saturday when they host the Sabres at Air Canada Centre. Carlyle liked his team’s effort and worth ethic on the road, but he lamented a lack of second opportunities.
“The one thing that we could do is we could shoot the puck,” Carlyle said. “Put the puck towards the net and drive people towards the net. Shoot the puck. Don’t try to be so fine. It seems like we’re trying to pick the top corners, they’re trying to pick spots where we should be just concentrating on quicker release, get pucks directed at the net, have that second and third opportunity. And I think we’d be rewarded.”
Van Riemsdyk should’ve been rewarded in the game’s final minute. With Bernier off for an extra attacker, the Leafs got their best chance of the night with goaltender Ryan Miller likely unable to get over in time.
Foligno called Ehrhoff’s block “something special.”
“It was just desperation,” Ehrhoff said. “I know (Miller) was just on the other side of the net and the puck came out to van Riemsdyk and I just tried to make myself as big as I can, and I got the save.”
Just 12 seconds later Ehrhoff iced the game by scoring an empty-netter from his own goal line.
“It brings a smile to my face,” Miller said. “Christian Ehrhoff had the play of the game and saved our butts and then he put it away. It was a great turn of events there to watch him make that play on the back side, have great awareness to find it and help me out then get it down the ice and split the uprights.”
The Sabres gave Nolan his first NHL head-coaching victory since 2008 and first behind the bench for Buffalo since 1997.
“You know what? I can’t even put it into words,” he said. “It was one of those games where you didn’t know where this type of day would ever happen again. It was really very emotional. I’ll have a good cry after everybody leaves.”
Bernier believed the Leafs deserved “a better fate” than a regulation loss, but Carlyle doesn’t want his players crying about falling short against the Sabres.
“We can’t get down on what happened tonight,” Carlyle said. “They don’t feel very good about themselves, but it’s about results-oriented and that’s what happens. But I thought our work ethic was strong, we did a lot of good things in the hockey game and we’re going to have to continue to work on that.”
Notes: Rookie defenceman Morgan Rielly was a healthy scratch for the second time in three games and fourth time this season. When he played Wednesday at the Minnesota Wild, the Leafs dressed seven defencemen. ... Foligno’s goal was his seventh point in seven career games against Toronto.