Win keeps Leafs in playoff hunt

Buffalo Sabres' Tyler Ennis chases Toronto Maple Leafs' Dion Phaneuf.  (REUTERS/Doug Benz)

Buffalo Sabres' Tyler Ennis chases Toronto Maple Leafs' Dion Phaneuf. (REUTERS/Doug Benz)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:04 PM ET

BUFFALO -- In recent suffering seasons, the HSBC Arena has been the place where the Maple Leafs come to die -- or at least roll over.

Why expect anything different Wednesday night from a team clinging to remote playoff hopes and playing it's second of back-to-back road games?

On a rink that has given the Leafs so much misery the past five seasons, the gritty young team managed to put whatever playoff hopes they have on a grade somewhere above life support.

A spirited effort by the Leafs resulted in a 2-1 win over the Sabres, their first win in here since Dec. 12, 2008.

Not only that, when combined with New Jersey's 3-2 win over Carolina, the Leafs are suddenly -- and perhaps incredibly -- within shouting distance of post-season spot in the Eastern Conference.

The Leafs moved ahead of Florida into 11th place and are now just four points behind Atlanta and Buffalo and two more behind the eighth-place Hurricanes with 24 games remaining in their season.

A little early and a little distant for playoff fever, perhaps, but don't tell that to a young team determined to make its mark on hard work most nights.

"If there's six to eight weeks left, you just take a point a week," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson, who like the rest of his team is enjoying doing the math. "If you can look at it that way, you can get yourself in.

"Our focus is where it should be. We have a solid work ethic through our team right now and a lot of youthful legs and enthusiasm and it shows."

There's still plenty to be done, of course, but a second consecutive road win in a building that has been tough for the Leafs will be a boost to their collective confidence. And that enthusiasm will go along way to make up for whatever shortfall in talent the team has.

Joey Crabb's first goal as a Leaf at 8:29, a short-handed effort that had his teammates raving, stood up as the game winner. Phil Kessel, who we keep hearing scores in bunches, is heating up. The dangerous forward opened the scoring Wednesday night with his third in two nights has 22 and is back on pace for a 30-goal season.

As has been the case with this team the past week, there was plenty of drama off the ice on this quick road trip.

For starters, goaltender J-S Giguere suffered a lower-body injury in the first period that is suspected to be a flare-up of the groin ailment that bothered him earlier in the season. He was replaced by rookie James Reimer, but with Jonas Gustavsson and Jussi Rynnas both hurt, suddenly the Leafs are thin in net.

Much of the day Wednesday, talk swirled around the condition of the head of centre Mikhail Grabovski, who suffered a couple of crushing blows from Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara the night before leading to speculation he might have had a concussion.

Grabovski said afterwards that he felt fine all day Wednesday and didn't see a doctor. He proved it by winning the game's opening faceoff and another in the dieing seconds to help preserve the win.

So where does it go from here beyond a home date against Ottawa on Saturday night?

"That was a big character win for our team," said captain Dion Phaneuf. "This is a tough building for us to play in and now we move forward to Saturday.

"All we can do is take care of our games. That's all we can control."

Since the all-star break, they've been controlling it rather well, building a 6-2-1 record to at least make things interesting through the early portions of the stretch drive.

"Obviously, six points is still a long way to go, but we're working hard and getting results," defenceman Luke Schenn said. "We're just worrying about ourselves and when you do that, sooner or later you are going to start making up some ground.

"We aren't the most talented team in the league, but it's a better feeling around here and we're optimistic."


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