Leafs down Sabres despite depleted lineup

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:26 AM ET

In this, the first official shootout in the battle of the Golden Horseshoe, Alex Ponikarovsky proved to be the man with the midas touch.

On a team missing five regulars because of injury, Ponikarovsky was the latest hero for a hobbled Maple Leafs squad that continues to thrive amidst adversity.

After scoring his league-leading fourth short-handed goal earlier in the game, Ponikarovsky ended an electrifying evening of end-to-end hockey by beating Marty Biron to give the Maple Leafs a 4-3 shootout victory over the Buffalo Sabres last night in front of an euphoric capacity crowd at the Air Canada Centre.

"I just tried to read off the goaltender and do my thing," a modest Ponikarovsky said after leading the never-say-die Leafs to their fourth consecutive victory.

Shootouts hadn't been the Leafs forte to date. Entering play last night, they were just 1-3 in the penalty-shot format, including a pair of losses to the rival Ottawa Senators early in the season.

But goaltender Ed Belfour, who looked weak on Jason Pominville's tying goal midway through the third period, made up for that gaffe by thwarting Ales Kotalik, Buffalo's first shooter.

Captain Mats Sundin then responded by juking Biron, then ripping a shot off his catching hand to give the Leafs a 1-0 shootout lead.

"Penalty shots are always a little flukey," he said. "But it's easier when you get the go-ahead goal like that, for sure. I tried to fake five-hole, then skimmed one off his glove."

After Belfour stopped Thomas Vanek, Ponikarovsky sealed the deal by beating Biron for the victory.

"It's definitely important to win these shootouts," Belfour said. "I try and work on it in practice. It was great to get the win."

So how does this team keep weaving victories together whenever the medical room starts getting jammed with bodies?

"It seems like once we get injuries, we tend to simplify our game,"said Sundin, attempting to explain the trend that seems to have developed ever since Pat Quinn took over as coach in 1998. "We just work hard and take it any way we can."

The Leafs were without defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo, who jammed his wrist against the Pittsburgh Penguins Tuesday in Steeltown. He joined a lengthy list of sidelined teammates that also included Alex Steen, Eric Lindros, Nik Antropov and Jason Allison.

Enter Staffan Kronwall, who was called up to replace Colaiacovo after a 14-game absence.

The chemistry exhibited between Ponikarovsky and Matt Stajan while killing penalties seems to be ballooning with each game.

While Ponikarovsky has more short-handed goals than any other NHLer this season, Stajan leads the league in shorthanded points with six.

"Obviously it's a good thing," Stajan said when informed of his prestigious accomplishment.

"But the main thing is to kill off penalties."

Bryan McCabe and Darcy Tucker scored the other Leafs goals, while Pominville, Tim Connolly and Henrik Tallinder replied for the Sabres.


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