By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
At the 2:11 mark of the third period Sunday night, it looked as if the Toronto Maple Leafs had all of the momentum in the world.
They had just tied the game against the Buffalo Sabres on a goal by Zach Hyman, sending their half of the sellout crowd at the KeyBank Center (based on noise, not a formal head count) into a brief, loud delirium. The Leafs had come back from two goals down, as they finally put some offense together in support of goalie Frederik Anderson. He had kept Toronto in the game for the opening 40 minutes. The Sabres appeared to be in trouble.
And they were – for about four minutes.
Then Buffalo responded by scoring three goals in a minute and 31 seconds. The Sabres haven’t had an explosion that fast since 1998, with names like Holzinger, Barnaby and Varada doing the scoring back then. The eventual result was a 5-2 win that left the Sabres’ half of the crowd in hockey ecstasy for the rest of the night.
“It was a lot of fun to be honest,” Jimmy Vesey said about an entertaining evening before a crowd with split loyalties. “I thought the atmosphere was great. It’s a big game for us in the standings. It was our last chance to gain some ground on them.”
Penalty leads to trouble
The burst started when Jake Muzzin of the Leafs picked up a holding penalty at 5:12. The most reliable offensive weapon on Buffalo’s man-advantage situation has been Jack Eichel’s cross-ice pass to Victor Olofsson for a one-time. On Sunday, those two reversed the play, and Eichel scored to allow the Sabres to regain the lead at 6:08.
“He’s had a great year,” Vesey said about Eichel. “He’s been the guy for us. It was a little frustrating on the first couple of our power plays went. But good for him. He took charge and put it in the back of the net.”
How did the Maple Leafs react to this turn of events? Their defense had a couple of huge breakdowns.
After the Toronto defense mishandled a clearing play by the Sabres into the neutral zone, Kyle Okposo suddenly was off to the races on a breakaway. He beat Andersen at 6:55, and it was a much more comfortable 4-2 lead.
It was the 500th career point for Okposo. He’s been bothered by physical problems for some time, but this seemed like the type of number that should put on a smile on his face. Not too many NHL players ever get there, and he’s shown a ton of resilience doing it.
“I’m not huge on milestones, but this is a pretty nice one,” said Okposo, who mentioned that he’s not a saver of pucks from such moments. “When I hit 500 games, that was a big one for me personally. This one’s nice, and one I’ll look back on and smile about.”
Less than a minute after that, the Toronto defense decided to leave Vesey all alone alongside of its net. Rasmus Ristolainen got the puck to him, and Vesey had no trouble flipping it into the goal.
“It was a great play by Risto,” Vesey said. “He had the courage to stay in there. I didn’t know if he saw me. He plays hard every night, and he doesn’t back down.”
From there, it was a matter of running out the clock. The Maple Leafs had played on Saturday night, and they didn’t have the energy to mount any response. Buffalo was content to hold on to the three-goal margin to collect its third straight win.
“We’re starting to get the confidence going in the room, and I think that’s everything,” Eichel said. “We’re getting contributions from everyone. If we keep doing that and playing hard, who knows what can happen?”
A big finish
The Sabres thus finished their 10-game stretch that featured nine home games with a 5-4-1 record. The losses to Ottawa, Montreal and Detroit may be even more painful in hindsight right now. But at least there’s a feeling that Buffalo has righted the ship in the past seven days.
“There’s a shift in here,” Okposo said. “I don’t like to talk about years past. But if you look at this year as a whole, we started real well. Then we went through a couple of really tough stretches. Now we’ve won three in a row. In the past, we didn’t do that. We struggled to find that consistency, and now we have a really good gameplan and a good recipe for success.”
And – let’s face it – the key person in that stretch might have been Carter Hutton. The goalie’s game looked to be a mess when this stretch started with an injury to Linus Ullmark, since Hutton hadn’t won a game since October. But the veteran stepped up his game by earning all five of the wins in this stretch. Without that, it might be a case of “look out below.”
Hutton only faced 22 shots on Sunday night, but he did what was needed when it was needed.
“Hutts was really good,” Vesey said. “They’ve got some skill guys, but he stood tall. I’m really happy for him, the way he’s battled this season.”
How will this act play on the road? We’ll find that out starting on Tuesday in Ottawa and Saturday in Pittsburgh.
“We’ve been building something on this homestand,” coach Ralph Krueger said. “We started slowly which was disappointing. But we fought and worked hard to get our game back, and to get the bodies back. To put it together for these three wins in a row has certainly been built on a battle level, a compete level, that’s important at this time of the year. As other teams are raising their games, we need to match it. This has been a really good week at home – to give our fans what I was saying a week ago they deserve. Now we have to take this on the road.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)