TORONTO - Business was rapidly trending from bad to brutal for Randy Carlyle’s Maple Leafs Friday night, further heightening the risk of heading into next week’s Winter Classic as a league laughing stock.
Bad enough that they were screaming towards a third loss in fourth games this season vs. the NHL’s worst team, there was the added indignity of Buffalo Sabres goon John Scott helping his team to a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes.
That would be the same Scott who called the Leafs captain “Princess Phaneuf” after an earlier meeting, weeks after threatening to punch out leading scorer Phil Kessel which in turn helped earn David Clarkson a 10-game suspension to start his career in Toronto.
Then the shame game took over and the Leafs went from rock bottom to rock solid, restoring the faith of what had been an extremely restless sellout crowd at the Air Canada Centre.
There was much more to unfold in what turned into a wildly entertaining night, but a Joffrey Lupul shootout goal gave the Leafs the much needed 4-3 win.
A three-goal third period not only shot the struggling club to a 3-2 lead over their nemesis from down the QEW, but appeared to trigger what Carlyle hopes will be an important re-set following the three-day Christmas break.
Of course, nothing comes easy with this team as that lead lasted until 24 seconds remaining in regulation when Steve Ott slipped a juicy rebound under Jonathan Bernier. It was the 11th time this season that the Leafs have surrendered a tying goal in the third period and a club record fourth time the team went to a shootout.
Lupul, with a nifty deke and backhand move on Miller was the winner as Bernier stopped all three Sabres shooters. The Leafs were twice denied great opportunities in overtime when Miller stoned both James van Riemsdyk and Dion Phaneuf in what turned out to be yet another dizzying conclusion to a Leafs game.
Until that point, it was a crazy game of highs and lows as the Leafs fell behind 2-0 and were hearing it from the ACC crowd.
But Phil Kessel’s power-play goal with 17 seconds left in the second gave the home team its first lead of the night and threatened to stand up as the game winner. It was Kessel’s team-leading 18th goal of the season but just his second in the past 10 games.
The goal, on a point shot from Phaneuf and quick rebound feed from van Riemsdyk, capped off a three-goal period for the Leafs, one in which they outshot the Sabres 17-5.
And for a while it looked like it would be one of the most important period 20-minute stretches of the season as the Leafs asserted themselves against an inferior opponent.
The incentive for Game 40 should have been high on multiple levels as the mid-point of the season arrives here Sunday night against the Carolina Hurricanes. But high on the list had to be avoiding the indignity of yet another loss to the lowest team in the NHL standings.
That’s a lot of potential squandered points against a team a marginal playoff contender like the Leafs became in December can ill afford, even in the mediocre Eastern Conference.
Then there was the fact that the Leafs were beginning a five-game stretch in which the only team currently in the playoff picture is the struggling Red Wings, who they will meet in front of some 107,000 fans at Michigan Stadium in the Jan. 1.
After a brutal December - both in terms of a tough schedule and dodgy results - the next couple of weeks had to be seen as an opportunity too important to waste.
The Leafs seemed fixed on squandering that opportunity, however as the Sabres struck first with a pair of goals just 53 seconds apart in the first. Matt Moulson got it started as the Leafs were once again soft in front of their own net and the winger jammed a puck past Jonathan Bernier.
The worst - on too many levels - was the second one, however as Scott scored just the second of his career (and first in 164 games) in what was his 200th NHL game. A poorly played dump-in by Matt Ellis bounced off his chest protector and created an opportunity that even Scott couldn’t miss.
We’re guessing that HBO might have had some blue-air material during the first intermission, as the Leafs came out fired-up and determined to get back in the game.
The work eventually began to pay off at 8:22 when Jake Gardiner one-timed a nice saucered pass from Kessel and launched it to the top corner behind Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller. It was Gardiner’s second of the season, a rocket that Miller would have had little shot of snagging, even if he had seen it.
Less than five minutes later, Peter Holland buried a shot from close in after Mason Raymond made a pass while lying on his stomach. The Leafs had chances to increase their lead in the third - on one Miller robbed future U.S. Olympic teammate Kessel and on another Toronto rookie Morgan Rielly rang a shot off the goal post.
And then came the final 50 seconds of regulation on a power-play and with Miller out of the net for a six on four as Phaneuf was off for hooking. Just 25 seconds into that power play, Bernier let out yet another bad rebound and Carl Gunnarsson couldn’t tie up Ott at the goalmouth.