A happier ending

BILL LANKHOF

, Last Updated: 8:07 AM ET

Maybe Lady Luck is a Leafs fan after all. Guess she just doesn't do Fridays in Buffalo.

The Maple Leafs put in a gutsy effort, got a few bounces and some key saves from Andrew Raycroft and beat the Buffalo Sabres 4-1 last night.

Some might suggest it came 24 hours late after Friday's Fright Night in Buffalo. Last night there were haunting similarities, but there was a much happier ending for the Leafs Nation.

Darcy Tucker led the attack with two goals while Carlo Colaiacovo and Nik Antropov had one each. Buffalo got a goal from Jochen Hecht.

"If we lose (last night) then we're really out of it. We feel comfortable and happy now because we still have our own destiny in our hands," Raycroft said.

The Leafs' netminder might not have been busy with Buffalo -- the Sabres, playing their third game in four nights, were outshot 35-20 -- but he rescued his club last night.

With Toronto up 3-1 in the second period, Daniel Briere stepped from the penalty box and broke in all alone from centre. Raycroft snapped out his right pad on the deke.

"He was huge right there," said Matt Stajan, who played a solid, grinding game defensively. "We got the two-goal lead and suddenly their best players got a breakaway. When he made that save you could just feel the confidence cross our bench."

Maybe, just maybe, this wouldn't be a replay of the 5-4 loss that resulted in a sombre bus ride home Friday. A loss last night and the Leafs had less chance of climbing back to eighth spot than Dorothy and Toto had of ever again seeing Kansas. With the win they sit 11th, two points behind Montreal and Carolina and one behind the 10th-place Islanders. Passing one team in the stretch is difficult; waiting for three to do a Pink Panther pratfall is just wishful thinking. Besides, it looked like the Leafs might be auditioning for that part.

Last night had some ominous familiarity. Friday, in the first period Toronto outshot Buffalo 21-9. Last night it was 16-4. Both nights the Leafs had nothing but a 1-1 tie to show for it. Tucker had given Toronto a 1-0 lead but a Hecht shot deflected past Raycroft with less than two minutes to play in the period. "Yeah," Stajan said, when asked if that wasn't just a bit creepy, "but we took a lot from the fact (Friday) that we could play with them. It hit my stick -- stuff like that happens."

And some Fridays it happens too often. "But the way we clamped down (in this game) shows we have the character to bounce back after losing the worst possible way you can lose a game," Stajan said.

Goals from Tucker and Colaiacovo made it 3-1 just 3:34 into the second period. "The room was loud," Maurice said of the pregame attitude. "The building was great," he said of the fans. But there was also apprehension. The Leafs Nation has marched down this road to nowhere too many times the past four decades.

"To win like we did shows a lot about everyone in this dressing room. And, we're going to need it Tuesday against Carolina and from now on," Stajan said. "We obviously can't lose too many more games."

Maybe none.

There are seven games left for the Leafs to get this right. If not, you can bet folks will still be giving the Leafs the foam finger. But it won't have anything to do with being No. 1.

Raycroft staved off that inevitability when he made a glove save on Hecht to open the third. Bryan McCabe had to swipe a loose puck from the goal line in a scramble. Raycroft snapped the five-hole closed on Jason Pominville's break-in. And all of that was in just the first three minutes. Surviving that might have been the turning point because at 5:04 Antropov deflected McCabe's point shot to make it 4-1.

RESPECT RETURNS

Maurice said he had felt worse about a loss only twice in his career on the ride home Friday. "And in those we at least walked away with some respect," he said.

The Leafs got some of that respect back last night. "When I came to work (yesterday) I was wondering how are we going to get these guys back?," Maurice said, "but if there was any question about (the character in) our room they played a great game. When we've been kicked this year we've found a way to come back."

So, the Leafs' hopes live. "I thought we had to win two of three this week," Maurice said, "and we did."

As usual, they did it the hard way.

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REPORT CARD

A Forwards: Deserved more than a split after helping produce back-to-back four-goal games against one of the NHL's best teams.

A Defence: Kept the speedy Sabres to the outside and quickly cleared any juicy rebounds out of harm's way.

A Goaltending: Okay, so maybe Andrew Raycroft didn't have much work. Then again, he preserved Toronto's third-period lead, a claim none of the Leafs could make Friday.


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