Teary return for Tucks

BILL LANKHOF

, Last Updated: 8:01 AM ET

Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin tries a wraparound on Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, but is unsuccessful. The Leafs' misfortunes against the Sabres continued, this time in a 3-1 loss at the Air Canada Centre. The Leafs were playing their first game without Tomas Kaberle, but their first with Darcy Tucker since January.

For the Maple Leafs it was an emotional night. It's not often someone makes Darcy Tucker cry tears of happiness.

Too bad it wasn't a winning night.

First the emotion: There was the mourning after on the hit that sidelined Tomas Kaberle. That was coupled with the surprising return of Tucker.

And don't forget the reincarnation of Jean-Sebastien Aubin as a working goaltender.

There was jump. There was tenacity. There was persistence under duress. There was a 3-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres that leaves the Leafs no closer to a playoff spot and looking a lot like adversity's children.

After falling behind 2-0 the Leafs looked like they might accomplish a comeback win for the second consecutive game. Five minutes into the third, Ian White clanked a shot off the post. Tucker missed on a cross-crease pass. Mats Sundin was in alone and fired high. The Leafs were like bees on honey.

But if the Leafs were riding the emotion of Tucker's return, the Sabres were riding the sure-handed netminding of Ryan Miller. In two meetings this week he has beaten Toronto twice, allowing just two goals.

"I'm not saying he stole one, but ..." said Sundin, letting the idea trail off.

This game wasn't supposed to end this way. The return of Tucker had the Air Canada Centre abuzz.

"You could feel the energy was there," Leafs coach Paul Maurice said. "What we needed was a goal to get us out of the gate and we had some great chances."

John Pohl fanned with an open net in the opening minutes which, aside from the Tucker love-in, summed up the Leafs' night.

Tucker, on a line with Chad Kilger and Travis Green, got a nice ovation when he stepped on the ice for his first shift two minutes into the game.

Tucker had immediate impact. Maurice put Tucker on an early Leafs power play. Tucker did the usual bang and crash. He set up Pohl. Every time he touched the puck, fans cheered.

Later, with the play stopped, the scoreboard showed a montage of Tucker plays. That brought a semi standing ovation.

"For the first time in my life as a Leaf I really understood what its like to be a Toronto Maple Leaf," Tucker said. "It was emotional. I'm not going to lie to you. It was something that was unexpected."

As the cheer swelled, so did his eyes. He gave a quick wave.

"I had a hard time on the bench for a couple of seconds," he said of welling tears. "Obviously, there are guys like Mats and the elite players who played here, Gilmour, Clark, Sittler. But for me, that was special. I don't consider myself an elite player so to get that ovation was nice."

Tucker played just once -- on Jan. 1 against Boston -- since Dec. 26 when he suffered cracked bones in his left foot during a game against the Minnesota Wild. Maurice had indicated it would be at least another week before Tucker was back in uniform.

With Aubin getting his first start since Dec. 29 -- a Maytag repairman gets more calls -- this truly was a night when the wounded and the forgotten were recalled to fleeting glory.

Aubin's previous win was Nov. 11 against Montreal. Aubin looked rusty in the first period and later acknowledged as much. In the second, he stopped Daniel Briere twice and looked sharp -- but so did the Sabres, who opened a 2-0 lead.

Toni Lydman scored less than five minutes into the period on a point shot. Jeff O'Neill almost tied it when he skated from the corner and had his shot ping-pong between Miller's legs and out. A penalty to Carlo Colaiacovo at 17:44 gave Drew Stafford a power-play goal nine seconds later.

That set up a hectic third. Again it was Tucker who wasn't shy about the rough stuff, hammering Nathan Paetsch into the backboards.

Nik Antropov finally beat Miller at 16:50 but by then Paetsch had put Buffalo up 3-0.

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REPORT CARD

D Forwards: Ryan Miller is one of the league's top goaltenders, but that does not excuse Toronto forwards from scoring a total of two goals against him in their past two home games.

C Defence: Missing regulars Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina, the Toronto blue line didn't fare too bad against the speedy Sabres, all things considered.

C Goaltending: While unable to steal his team the game, J-S Aubin still allowed his team to stay within striking distance for much of the evening.


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