BUFFALO – Randy Carlyle chose his words carefully.
"If I say what I wanted to say we'd be reading that there would possibly be a nominal fine against the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs so no comment on what was happening out there," Carlyle said with a large grin.
A wild scrum in front of Ben Scrivens lasting seconds on end concluded with Jordan Leopold tying the score at five in the final seconds of regulation, the precursor to Derek Roy winning it in overtime as the desperate Sabres scratched back to beat the Leafs by a 6-5 final at First Niagara Center on Tuesday night.
It was a game Buffalo had to have – its playoff hopes hanging in the balance – but one the Leafs had in their grips. Sporting a comfortable 3-0 lead after the opening frame (and 5-3 in the third), the Leafs "got a little satisfied" in their final trip down the QEW, eventually bested by a Sabres club fighting with every inch of desperation.
A roster brimming with inexperienced talent – Scrivens, Joe Colborne, Matt Frattin, Jake Gardiner and Carter Ashton will all soon rejoin the Marlies for their playoff run – offered glimpses of its potential in defeat, the final result ultimately standing as a lesson for the road ahead.
"Those are games we have to close out," Frattin said. "You've got leads like that, doesn't matter who you're playing you've got to close those ones out. Those are the games we have to close out next year if we want to be a playoff contender and make the playoffs."
1. Frattin fired a one-time bullet past Ryan Miller for his second in as many games against the Sabres and eighth in 54 games this season. Asked a day earlier what he'd learned in his rookie season about scoring in the NHL, Frattin offered a snapshot in simplicity. "I think just trying to hit the net," he told TSN.ca. "They've been kind of harping on me a little bit [to do that]. Getting quite a bit of chances, but I'm just trying to be a little too precise and just pick the corners a little too much when it's big goalies. I think the biggest thing is just getting pucks on net nice and quick and making the goalie make a save." A product of the University of North Dakota, Frattin also picked up another lesson from his first go-around in the league. "Probably how long the year is," he said. "In college you're working out all year. With NHL there's not much time to work out, like in between games. It's more of just stretching out and trying to recover your body because you're maintaining your muscle mass in games. That's probably the biggest difference between college and the NHL; I've already played close to double as many games as I did last year." Frattin played 44 games with the Fighting Sioux last season, totaling 75 a year later, split between the Leafs and Marlies.
2. The Edmonton native also added an assist on the first of two goals from Tyler Bozak, completing the Gordie Howe hat trick later in the period with his first career scrap against Marcus Foligno. Frattin surely earned points with both Carlyle and Leaf brass for his gutsy effort versus Foligno, who delivered a pair of thundering hits to the Leafs, the first on Gunnarsson – knocking him from the game – and the second on Bozak, inciting the fight.
3. Colborne returned to the Leafs for the first time since December, notching an assist in his first game under the new head coach. "I don't have quite the nerves that I had when I was called up last couple times," he said hours before game-time. "I'm more excited just that I get a chance to show the new coaches what I can do." Colborne had been in the midst of a real slow spell offensively at the time of his call-up, totaling just two assists (zero goals) in the previous 19 games. "The pucks aren't going in right now," he said a day earlier. "The chances are there; I've been hitting different posts and generating chances, it's just a matter of finishing. I've been saving up for my time up here if I get a chance [Tuesday], break out in that way. But I'm excited for the playoffs with the Marlies and hopefully we'll go for a long run. And like everyone in the management has been saying, it's going to be huge for all the young guys' confidence to learn how to go through a playoff stretch."
4. While the entire roster is under dutiful inspection by Carlyle, it's the current crop of young talent who may have the most to gain in the final days of the regular season. Gearing toward the AHL playoffs, the likes of Colborne, Frattin, Gardiner, Scrivens and Ashton all hold a short window of opportunity to impress Carlyle ahead of training camp next fall. "I think all the young guys that they brought up are all auditioning for the new coaches and the management that have been watching us all year so it'll be a good step forward," Colborne said before the game. In addition to the offensive contributions from Colborne and Frattin on Tuesday, the Leafs also received a YouTube-like goal from Gardiner, who circled the Buffalo net and a number of Sabre defenders before beating Miller far-side.
5. With a three-point night on Tuesday, Phil Kessel became the first Leaf to hit the 80-point plateau since Mats Sundin in 2001-02. Kessel has 37 goals, 44 assists and 81 points after 80 games this season, all three career-highs. "He's been involved in a lot of goals," Carlyle said when questioned on Kessel's underrated passing ability. "He has a special skill-set that he can create space out of nothing; those are the type of plays you become accustomed to when you see him do it every day."
Clarke MacArthur snapped a 13-game drought with his 20th goal of the season. The 26-year-old has hit the 20-goal mark in each of the past two seasons...The Leafs had dropped nine of the previous 10 against the Sabres in Buffalo...Gunnarsson left the game one shift after the Foligno hit (12 seconds into the game) and did not return, sidelined with an upper-body injury...Mike Komisarek took his place alongside Dion Phaneuf, logging over 22 minutes...Bozak added an assist for the three-point night, also totaling nearly 23 minutes...Colborne finished 5-18 in the faceoff circle.