Usually, the best part of the Toronto Maple Leafs' short trip to Buffalo to play the Sabres is the postgame spread of chicken wings and chicken parmesan. But few Toronto players could stomach any grub after their third-period collapse last night.
After playing 40 minutes of strong, positional hockey, the Maple Leafs stumbled and bumbled over each other in their own end in the third period and blew a two-goal lead.
Even though Chad Kilger scored twice in the final 10 minutes of regulation time to give Toronto the lead back two more times, it wasn't enough. The Sabres skated off with a 5-4 overtime victory before a divided crowd of 18,217 at the HSBC Arena.
The winning, power-play goal was credited to Ales Kotalik with 3.7 seconds remaining in the extra period - but the puck was accidentally fired into the Leafs' net by Toronto defenceman Bryan McCabe.
Kotalik took the initial shot. McCabe was battling for the loose puck in a goal-mouth scramble with Buffalo behemoth Paul Gaustad when the Leafs' blueliner slammed the puck past goaltender Andrew Raycroft.
"Obviously, I wasn't trying to shoot it in my own net," McCabe said. "The rebound came out. I was just trying to shoot it in the corner. It went off the post and in."
McCabe had had a strong game until his overtime gaffe, rebounding nicely from a dismal outing last Saturday in the Leafs' 6-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. (The Leafs also blew a two-goal lead in that game, and McCabe was minus-3 and heard the wrath of the Air Canada Centre boo-birds.)
Toronto head coach Paul Maurice said last night he hoped the Air Canada Centre fans would take it easy on the top-paid player on the team - at $5.75-million (U.S.) a season - when the Leafs return to action at home against the Florida Panthers on Thursday.
"This guy's having a tough time having something positive happen for him with that stick of his," Maurice said. "He battled hard tonight, blocked some shots and did a lot of really good things.
"He's one of the elite offensive players in the National Hockey League. ... I hope the fans give him a break."
McCabe's game-ending miscue wasn't the only blunder in Toronto's finish.
The No. 1 line of captain Mats Sundin, Jason Blake and Alex Steen was on the ice for the Sabres' first three goals, as was the defence pairing of Pavel Kubina and Andy Wozniewski.
Sundin and Steen were also on the ice when teammate Hal Gill was caught flat-footed at the Toronto blueline, enabling Jochen Hecht to score and pull the Sabres even, 4-4, with 3 minutes 33 seconds remaining in the game.
"We let go of the initiative," Sundin said. "You can't do that against a team like Buffalo. We stopped skating a little bit and all of a sudden they are back in the game."
The Leafs took a 2-0 lead into the third period.
Simon Gamache scored in the first period and Nik Antropov chipped in his club-leading fifth goal in the second past backup goalie Jocelyn Thibault, who got the start after Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff decided to rest No. 1 netminder Ryan Miller.
But the Sabres stormed the Toronto end in the final 20 minutes. Adam Mair finally banged in a pass from Derek Roy at 8:12, and then Jason Pominville knocked in the tying goal 37 seconds later.
The Leafs regained the lead with Kilger's conversion of a setup by Antropov. But Buffalo forward Thomas Vanek tied the contest 3-3 less than two minutes after.
Kilger's second goal arrived 35 seconds after Vanek's to make the score 4-3. But that slim lead only had a 2:50 shelf life when Hecht slipped another shot by Raycroft.
Toronto was outshot 19-5 in the third period and 42-25 overall.
The Leafs played without forward Alexei Ponikarovsky for the third consecutive game because of an ankle injury.