The new and improved Dion Phaneuf struck again on Tuesday night.
With the Toronto Maple Leafs facing an early end to their meagre playoff hopes, the captain delivered another big game as part of a 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres, scoring the game's opening goal and logging nearly 30 minutes ice time.
The win means Toronto lives to fight another day, as the Leafs moved to within five points of Buffalo for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with five games to play, likely needing to win all of them to have a hope.
Phaneuf's goal seemed to be the catalyst for what came next, as his team raced out to a 3-1 lead not long after the big defenceman beat Sabres netminder Ryan Miller on Toronto's first shot of the game 1 minute, 32 seconds after the opening faceoff.
After a very quiet start to his tenure in Toronto, Phaneuf now has 12 points in 14 games in March, leading the Leafs in that span in assists, points, ice time and plus-minus.
Helping him on the scoreboard Tuesday were two of the usual candidates, with winger Clarke MacArthur chipping in with a goal and two assists and Mikhail Grabovski scoring the winner late in the second period.
The victory wasn't all that pretty, however, as Toronto blew an early 3-1 lead in the second period when the Sabres put two past netminder James Reimer in a 30-second span.
Coach Ron Wilson then called a timeout, which seemed to settle his team down, and Grabovski's goal gave them a one-goal lead heading into the third period. Buffalo couldn't find the equalizer in the final frame, one in which the Leafs out shot them 14-8.
"It was a great effort from everybody," Wilson said. "We did exactly what we needed to do to beat them."
Kadri coming around
Leafs rookie Nazem Kadri's two assists gives him five points in his latest seven-game callup, a stint in which Toronto's 2009 first-rounder has looked far more comfortable than his first go-round with the team this season.
Playing with a couple of former Toronto Marlies teammates in Darryl Boyce and Joey Crabb, Kadri was the driving force on the Leafs' second and third goals.
To get the first assist, he went hard to the net after a nice move out of the corner and Boyce whacked in the resulting rebound. For the second, Kadri walked around Sabres centre Tim Connolly to gain the zone and then hit MacArthur with a quick cross-ice pass that he fired past Miller.
Kadri's play has been rewarded with more ice time lately, as after playing nearly 17 minutes on Saturday night, he had a similar showing against the Sabres as Wilson gets more and more comfortable playing him.
"He's got a little bit more confidence now," Wilson said. "In watching him, I think he's better suited in our league to be on the wing. And he's learned his lessons from the beginning of the year. He's actually really good at getting pucks out in tough situations.
"He's slippery and with his confidence now, he's capable of making plays."
Leafs scoring race
MacArthur's goal and two assists, meanwhile, pushed him back into the Leafs' scoring lead with 59 points after 77 games, one better than both Kessel and Grabovski.
MacArthur had appeared to be slipping of late with only one goal in his last 14 games and only eight points in 13 games in March, but he was a big factor on the night as his line with Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin was again Toronto's best.
"We've been winning without Clarke scoring," Wilson said before the game. "He does other things well. I think Clarke's worried about [not having a contract]next year. He shouldn't be, but he is because he's human."
Buffalo entered the game red-hot, with an 11-3-3 run in its last 17 games and the team looking up the Eastern Conference standings rather than behind them at clubs like the Leafs.
One big reason for the rise has been the play of Miller, who started slow with only four wins in the first two months of the season but has begun to regain his Vezina Trophy form since the New Year in going 20-9-5 before Tuesday's loss.
Miller said he feels Buffalo is better prepared for the postseason than they were a year ago, when they struggled late in the year and were dumped in the first round by the lower-seeded Boston Bruins.
"You can't just will it, hit the light switch and hope it happens," Miller said of playing well come the playoffs. "It's something where you want to be playing that kind of game consistently all season."