The music was blaring in the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room – LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem – with several players bobbing their heads sitting in their stalls in what's been a rare scene after a home game of late.
Even with their season in ruin, after winning only five games in their previous 25 coming in, Saturday’s 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres was a huge weight off Toronto’s shoulders.
The Leafs, after all, hadn’t won at home in 55 days, a span of 11 straight home losses that set a franchise record and left them among the worst five teams in the NHL.
In the face of that, beating Buffalo, a team desperately in need of points for their own sagging playoff drive, meant something – if only in terms of team morale.
“Relief,” coach Randy Carlyle said when asked how it felt to finally get his first win at home since taking over March 2. “I think it’s more relief for our players than it is actually for a coach, but it’s deserved for the players... Because it’s been tough. It’s been tough on everybody.”
Saturday’s game seemed to be the first time in nearly two months that the Leafs got a relatively warm reception from the home crowd, who had taken to booing and catcalling the home side while they collapsed night after night.
On this night, Sabres netminder Ryan Miller was the focus of their derision, a welcome change for a Leafs team that had been playing without any confidence – or what Carlyle called will and passion – the past two weeks.
This was also a game that meant far more for the visitors than the home team, with Buffalo in a dogfight to make the postseason with the Washington Capitals.
The Sabres loss combined with Washington’s win dropped Buffalo two points back of the final spot in the Eastern Conference. The Caps also hold the tiebreaker, meaning the Sabres will now be in very tough to climb over them with just three games to play for both teams.
“It’s huge for us and obviously for the fans,” said Leafs winger Joey Crabb, who opened the scoring with a shorthanded goal 9:32 into the game.
“They supported us all year long and for a long time before I’ve been around. It’s nice to get a win for them and a win for us to get that off our shoulders.”
While it may not mean much at this point, this was one of Toronto’s better efforts overall in the past two months, as they got that early lead on Crabb’s goal and didn’t flinch when the Sabres tied things midway through the second period.
Phil Kessel (with his career high 37th) and John-Michael Liles then both tallied late in that middle frame to give the Leafs a two-goal lead going into the third, where Buffalo’s rally came up just short after Leafs rookie Matt Frattin scored the 4-2 marker with 9:40 to play.
The main positive from a Toronto standpoint was likely the play of rookie netminder Ben Scrivens, who made 29 saves less than 24 hours after playing in the AHL in a 5-4 overtime win on the road.
“He played great,” Crabb said. “He had a real solid game, and he made some huge saves. I can’t say enough about him stepping in like he did.”
Scrivens has been excellent of late in the minors – he leads the AHL in goals-against average and had a recent string of 21 starts with a .940 save percentage – and with both James Reimer (concussion) and Jonas Gustavsson (knee) out, may well get a look in some of the Leafs final three games.
The game was Scrivens’s first in the NHL since Nov. 20, but he spoke afterwards about how his badly beaten down teammates had wanted to earn some sort of minor positive out of the tail end of another lost season.
“I was more or less a fan for the last two or three months,” Scrivens said of watching the Leafs recent struggles while he was with the Marlies. “I wasn’t privy to all of the stuff that was going on here, but I know the guys in this room.
“Nobody in this room was giving up. Nobody was dogging it or throwing in the towel. They want to win. These guys are all competitors and like I said, hats off to these guys, because they responded tonight.”
The win didn’t do Toronto’s draft position any favours, but the Leafs also didn’t climb out of the fifth last spot, instead moving into a tie with the Anaheim Ducks and New York Islanders with 77 points.
They appear to be in line to finish the season anywhere between fourth and ninth last, which could have a big impact on the calibre of player they can select in this summer's entry draft.
Any more wins in their final three games will obviously hurt them in that respect come June.
For the players, however, a win on Saturday was a win, and it felt far better than most nights in this nightmare finish to their season.
“We want to win every game,” Crabb said. “Anytime we can win a game, if it hurts another team’s chances, we’re not going to feel bad about it, that’s for sure.”
"You feel much better, obviously, tonight than they did two nights ago," Carlyle said, referencing the team's embarrassing 7-1 loss on Thursday. "Hopefully that builds a little confidence... When you don't have success, you drag your knuckles around and they're hanging pretty low... It's tough on people."Report Typo/Error