BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) To the consternation of some fans of the last-place Sabres, Buffalo is refusing to go in the tank in the final weeks of the NHL season.
Matt Ellis and Matt Moulson scored 1:41 apart in the third period to rally the Sabres to a 4-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night in a matchup between the Eastern Conference’s two worst teams.
Don’t tell the Sabres they have nothing to play for after winning their second straight and moving to within two points of the 29th-place Arizona Coyotes.
”It’s that pride,” said captain Brian Gionta, who had two assists. ”No one wants to pack it in here. Everybody is playing right to the end, and it’s nice to see.”
That’s not entirely what a contingent of Sabres fans want to hear after they spent much of the season openly rooting for their team to finish last. That would guaranteed the team a shot at selecting one of two highly touted draft prospects: Erie Otters center Connor McDavid or Boston University center Jack Eichel.
None of that matters to the Sabres. They won in front of a large crowd of Maple Leafs fans, who made the short trip across the border. The crowd included Sabres jersey-wearing fans, who brought signs that read ”Embrace the Tank” and ””(hashtag)PRAY for McDAVID.”
”When the puck drops, you kind of put everything aside, and you go after it,” said Ellis, who scored his first goal of the season and added an assist. ”To have two in a row, it’s a pretty good feeling.”
Zac Dalpe and Cody Hodgson also scored, and Anders Lindback made 24 saves, including two key stops against Phil Kessel in the final minute.
Buffalo (22-47-8) has one more win than last season, and continued its home domination over Toronto by improving to 15-1-1 in the past 17 meetings.
The Maple Leafs (29-43-6) were coming off a 3-1 win over Tampa Bay on Tuesday, but they squandered a chance to win three straight for the first time since a six-game run from Dec. 10-16. The Maple Leafs are 10-34-3 since.
”You would like to think you’re going to continue where you left off,” interim coach Peter Horachek said. ”But it was just too sloppy. … Looked like training camp.”
James van Riemsdyk, Eric Brewer and Nazem Kadri scored for Toronto, which has lost six straight on the road.
Hodgson started Buffalo’s rally by scoring on a wraparound with 6:06 left in the second period – 30 seconds after Kadri put Toronto up 3-1.
Moulson tied it with a power-play goal 1:33 into the third period. Gionta started the play at the left boards and sent a no-look pass down low to Johan Larsson, who quickly fed the puck into the slot for Moulson’s one-timer.
Ellis was set up by Nikita Zadorov, who sped up the right wing and sent a pass into the middle. Ellis cut across to draw out goalie Jonathan Bernier and shoveled the puck into the open right side.
”I don’t score many like that. Usually, they’re gritty in the blue paint-type goals,” said the 33-year-old Ellis, who enjoyed his fourth career multiple-point game and first since March 31, 2010. ”But that was definitely one to get excited about.”
While Ellis and his teammates celebrated, some Sabres fans joined their Maple Leafs counterparts by sitting quietly following the sudden turn of events.
Those in the pro-losing group made their voices heard in Buffalo’s previous home game, a 4-3 overtime loss to Arizona on Thursday. That is when notable cheers went up each time the Coyotes scored.
NOTES: Sabres C Tyler Ennis returned after missing two games with a lower-body injury. That prompted the team to return forward Tim Schaller to AHL Rochester. … Sabres D Rasmus Ristolainen didn’t play because of flu symptoms. … The Maple Leafs, 8-26-5 on the road, are assured of finishing with their fewest road wins in an 82-game season. Their previous low was 12, set in the 1996-97 season and matched in 2009-10.