BUFFALO - Slap on the sombre soundtrack and graphics and you could make the DVD of this 6-5 loss a 65-minute microcosm of the Maple Leafs’ season.
Big start, bigger collapse, with closing credits over the Leafs trooping to their dressing room while the other team celebrates a huge win. The Leafs were trying to deliver last playoff rites to the Sabres on Tuesday, but instead showed again why they’ll be the post-season spectators. In the process, the Leafs wasted much of a huge night for Phil Kessel’s line, rookie winger Matt Frattin’s Gordie Howe hat trick and another electric goal by Jake Gardiner.
“That was as close to the playoffs as we’ll be,” Gardiner said. “We came out slow in the second period and let them take it to us.”
Buffalo came back from 3-0, 4-2 and 5-3 deficits and by failing to match the home team’s desperation, the Leafs ended up losing 6-5 in overtime. The climax had actually come with less than two minutes to play and a pile of bodies in front of Toronto goalie Ben Scrivens. In the confusion over where the puck was and with no one wanting to close their hand on it in the crease, play remained alive until Jordan Leopold moved in and “pitch-forked” it home.
Toronto was obviously hoping referee Mike Hasenfratz would blow the play dead after some quick whistles from both zebras earlier in the game. Mike Komisarek had literally tackled Marcus Foligno in front and was sitting on him, with four of the five Leafs who were on the ice trying to help Scrivens secure possession for a whistle.
“If I say what I want to say, we’d be reading about a nominal fine for the coach of the Leafs,” Randy Carlyle said, adding the loss was “gut-wrenching” to watch.
It was Buffalo’s biggest comeback in two years and allows the Sabres to stay alive entering this weekend’s play in their bid to catch the Washington Capitals for eighth in the East. The teams are knotted with 88 points, with the Caps holding the tiebreaker.
“This means a lot,” said Derek Roy, who scored twice, including 4-on-3 in overtime when Dion Phaneuf rushed a clearing attempt over the glass and was penalized. “It means we didn’t roll over and die. Our will was better than theirs, I thought.”
The Leafs were trying to win four games in one season against Buffalo for the first time since the Sabres’ expansion year. But their third loss at First Niagara Center becomes another chapter in a saga of unhappy endings here.
“Those are games we have to close out, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing,” Frattin said. “Those are the games we have to close out next year if we want to be playoff contenders.”
The Leafs have two games remaining, including the last chance to leave a good impression at home on Thursday when they try and stop Tampa’s Steve Stamkos and his assault on 60 goals. They wrap up Saturday in Montreal. Scrivens looked to be on his way to a second straight win over the Sabres, ending up stopping 39 of 45 shots.
“I obviously didn’t think (Leopold’s) goal would get through everybody,” Scrivens said. “I think there were nine guys laying down in front, counting me. I was just trying to grab someone’s stick or the puck. It just found a way in.”
Winger Joey Crabb said he wanted a Leafs win and a point for himself on his 29th birthday and assured half that wish came true early in the third. He seized a Clarke MacArthur rebound and sent it back to his linemate to make it 4-2 Leafs. But Scrivens, his own worst enemy at times on this night when handling the puck, was called for tripping right after the MacArthur play and a Roy power-play goal resulted.
On Gardiner’s solo goal, he swept around the net in a show of balance and skating, then shed Alex Sulzer to beat Ryan Miller. But Sulzer was also the first Sabre to crash the net in the third and be rewarded with a goal.
The Leafs lost defenceman Carl Gunnarsson with an upper body injury after a thundering opening-shift hit by Foligno popped his helmet off. He’s listed as day to day.
Carlyle must have had a vision, dressing Cody Franson as the seventh defenceman and sitting Colby Armstrong.
By the time Gunnarsson took himself out, Toronto was up 3-0 in its best first period since Feb. 29. The line of Kessel, Tyler Bozak and Frattin had eight of the nine points, with Bozak bagging a pair of goals.
Jay Rosehill and Frattin were involved in first-period fights.
Frattin didn’t fare so well in his first NHL bout, going after Foligno for what he thought was a cheap shot on Bozak.
“I thought I had to step up,” Frattin said. “He definitely had the size, but I thought I did pretty well.”
Joe Colborne, making his first appearance since a Monday call-up, had an assist. But the young Leafs will be feeling the effects of this game on their psyche for a long time.