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buffalo 4, toronto 3

Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier (45) makes a pad save on Buffalo Sabres left wing Matt Moulson (26) during the first period at First Niagara Center.Timothy T. Ludwig

It could have been billed as the NHL's battle in the basement. Or, perhaps more accurately, the NHL's battle for the basement, given what was at stake.

In one corner, the Toronto Maple Leafs, sitting firmly in fourth-last in the league.

In the other, the Buffalo Sabres, right at the bottom rung.

Both have a reasonable shot at winning the league's draft lottery in a couple weeks – 20 per cent for Buffalo and 9.5 per cent for Toronto – and getting a generational, Next One-type player in Connor McDavid.

The only thing that could mess that up? What was guaranteed for one of them on this odd night at the Sabres' First Niagara Center.

Getting two points in the standings.

The Sabres were the lucky ones on Wednesday. They rallied for a 4-3 win fuelled by two early third-period goals and some awful defensive play by the visitors. With that, they ended the Leafs' two-game win streak and started one of their own.

And when you've won a combined six of your past 30 games, taking two in a row is quite the accomplishment.

The basement battle is heating up.

The atmosphere for this one was strange from the start. Leafs fans streamed into the opposition's building with the names on their jerseys papered over with those of McDavid and fellow top prospect Dylan Strome.

Sabres fans posted signs – with one large one reading "Pray For McDavid" up in the nosebleeds – and cheered for another loss, as has become the custom.

Management, at least on the Buffalo side, has hardly discouraged this rare burst of anti-fandom, either.

"I watch him too much, and I think too much about him," Sabres general manager Tim Murray said of McDavid, sounding somewhat like a stalker in a piece in the New York Times last weekend. "I wish I could help myself.

"I've traded away a lot of good players for the simple fact we have to get better," he added. "Our time's the future. This guy I call our franchise-changing player."

And he's not even theirs to claim. Not yet anyway.

For all the talk of McDavid wearing a Sabres jersey and saving a franchise that has fallen on hard times – despite new owner Terry Pegula's huge infusion of capital – the funny thing is Buffalo is actually four times more likely to pick second overall.

That, too, is only if the Sabres do indeed remain in the NHL's basement. Buffalo has put together something of a "hot" streak of late – going 6-10-5 in its past 21 after Wednesday's win – and sits two points back of the 29th-place Arizona Coyotes.

All of Murray's watching and thinking, and all of the fans' praying and plotting, could be for naught if that keeps up and they somehow pass flailing Arizona in the season's final 10 days.

The Sabres could even end up drafting third.

The Leafs are in a similar boat, albeit with smaller stakes. Their pick right now has three realistic possibilities – first, fourth or fifth – although something unusual could happen if they catch the Carolina Hurricanes, who sit three points ahead of them with two games in hand.

After the team has shown a pulse of late, the doomsayers in the Leafs fan base are calling for just that, combined with a lottery win for someone ahead of them in the standings, which is the only scenario that could drop Toronto out of the top five picks.

They should breathe easy: That's a huge long shot, especially after this loss to Buffalo.

With only four games to go, the Leafs are running out of road to screw up their screwy season.

What Wednesday's loss did do was keep alive the slim chance that the Leafs could be caught by the suddenly surging Edmonton Oilers (5-1-2 in their plast eight), meaning that Brendan Shanahan could end up with the third choice, with a potential pick of the remaining stars after McDavid and Boston University's Jack Eichel go one-two.

It's unlikely. And it's hardly worth getting too excited over.

Even so, all these basement battles have certainly injected some meaning into what could have been meaningless late-season games. There was something to play for Wednesday in Buffalo, and reason to watch, for those with a taste for the absurd.

And kudos to the schedule makers for having the foresight to put it on April Fools' Day.