BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Mike Babcock sensed his slumping Toronto Maple Leafs were showing signs of turning the corner.
Auston Matthews and John Tavares delivered on their coach’s belief.
The high-scoring duo each had a goal and assist, and the Maple Leafs won for just the second time in six games, beating the Buffalo Sabres 4-2 on Wednesday night.
“I thought we played real well last night and weren’t rewarded in the end,” Babcock said, referring to Toronto coming off a 3-0 loss at Nashville.
“And I thought we played real well here tonight and were rewarded,” he added. “I liked that we played hard and did things well and stuck together.”
The Maple Leafs didn’t wilt despite trailing 1-0 after an opening period in which they outshot Buffalo 19-7. And they responded by scoring three consecutive goals, including Tavares and Marner scoring 1:50 apart, spanning the second intermission.
“The little slump we’ve been in late, it’s frustrating for everybody. You try to stay positive,” Matthews said. “Everybody was prepared tonight despite the back to back, and everybody came out flying.”
Mitchell Marner and Zach Hyman, into an empty net, also scored and the Maple Leafs inched to within four points of the idle Boston Bruins in the race for second place in the Atlantic Division standings. Garret Sparks stopped 22 shots for Toronto, which was playing on consecutive nights after a 3-0 loss at Nashville.
Casey Mittelstadt and Alexander Nylander scored for Buffalo, which dropped to 1-7-1 in its past nine. Coming off a 4-3 shootout win over St. Louis on Sunday, the Sabres have gone 41 games since winning consecutive outings. It’s a stretch dating to Dec. 11-13, during which Buffalo dropped to 12-24-5.
“It’s obviously frustrating here on home ice,” goalie Carter Hutton said. “We get a big win and then we can’t answer the bell here today.”
Hutton was solid by making 42 saves in a game Toronto outshot Buffalo 46-24.
The lack of consistency has raised questions regarding Sabres coach Phil Housley’s job security just two seasons into his tenure.
Housley wasn’t looking beyond Buffalo’s loss to Toronto.
“Just tonight, if I’m looking at tonight, I’m very, very disappointed in our game, because it’s a rivalry and we knew the magnitude of the game, and we didn’t execute,” Housley said.
Last year, Buffalo became the NHL’s first team to finish 31st following the addition of expansion Vegas Golden Knights. This year, the Sabres have unraveled over the past four months and are in jeopardy of becoming the league’s second team to miss the playoffs in a season in which they won 10 straight games.
Tavares scored the go-ahead goal with 1:28 left in the second period by converting a puck that pingponged into the crease. William Nylander’s shot from the right circle struck the crossbar, then the post, and bounced to the left of the net, where it struck Buffalo captain Jack Eichel’s knee and ricocheted back into the crease, where Tavares tapped it in.
Tavares then set up Marner’s goal 22 seconds into the third period with a no-look backhand pass from the left boards. Marner was untouched in driving to the slot, where he snapped a shot under Hutton’s blocker.
Sparks was coming off a 38-save performance in a 6-2 loss at Ottawa on Saturday, and suggested the Leafs needed to show more emotion.
Before the game, Babcock, agreed with the notion that Sparks’ comments might place more pressure on the backup goalie.
As for his expectations, Babcock said he wanted Sparks to focus on his own game.
“Any time you’re looking for any other help in life, it usually doesn’t go your way,” Babcock said. “So just own what you do and play as hard as you can tonight. We’re going to play hard for Sparky, and he’s going to play well.”
NOTES: Rasmus Dahlin’s assist on Mittelstadt’s goal upped the rookie’s total to 38 points and moved him ahead of Bobby Orr for second-most by an NHL defenseman before his 19th birthday. … The only player ahead of Dahlin is Housley, who had 57 points as an 18-year-old with Buffalo in 1982-83. … Toronto swept the four-game season series over Buffalo and improved to 22-11-4 on the road — one win shy of matching the franchise record set in 2003-04.
Maple Leafs: Host New York Rangers on Saturday.
Sabres: Open three-game road trip at Montreal Canadiens on Saturday.
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