BUFFALO – John-Michael Liles gazed up at the clock after he made the pass to Matt Frattin and determined that seven, maybe eight seconds remained in overtime. With former Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller tending goal for the Sabres, he figured the odds were slim at best.
"I'm just yelling at him to go," he told TSN.ca afterward. "You got Miller in net. That's not going to be a shot that you score on a lot of times, [but] hey you never know right, it's a win."
Frattin took the Liles feed, breezed by Jordan Leopold and beat Miller rooftop with a microscopic 1.5 seconds left in the extra frame as the Leafs snapped a mini two-game skid with a 4-3 victory at First Niagara Center. The 32-year-old Liles reacted with glee to the unlikely winner from Frattin, "standing in front of the net screaming".
After consecutive games in which they saw leads evaporate, Tuesday's final result was a needed step because it too could have melted away.
The Leafs were ahead by a goal entering the final frame when 18-year-old rookie Mikhail Grigorenko snuck one through James Reimer's five-hole. Rather than crumble, however, as they had against the Islanders and Rangers in recent days, the Leafs managed to hang around into overtime, just long enough – by mere seconds – for Frattin to ice the game.
"It's obviously huge for our confidence," said Jay McClement, who scored his first as a Leaf, "but I think we reacted a lot better to it tonight when they tied it up. We didn't shy away from our game, we kept going [and] we kept getting chances so that was good to see us react better."
Mounting injuries demanded greater opportunity for the likes of Frattin, McClement and Cody Franson (one goal, one assist), each of whom arose to help the Leafs seal an extra point over a division rival who has now dropped four straight.
1. Opportunity arose for Frattin earlier this month when Joffrey Lupul hit the shelf with a fractured right forearm. One of the final two cuts at training camp – he had a disappointing week and underwhelmed in his recent Marlies performance – the 25-year-old scored twice in Tuesday's victory, giving him three goals and a pair of assists in just three games. "To stick around the league you've got to be consistent and you've got to go every day," Frattin said after the game. "It doesn't matter if it's practice or [a] game, you've got to do the little things the coach is asking with systems. And that's how you earn your spot and earn a role in the league." Teamed with Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov, Frattin logged 16 minutes, scoring on both of his two shots. "Now when you do things like this, it forces you to play him, simple as that," Randy Carlyle said, noting Frattin's earlier struggles.
2. Notching a helper on Frattin's first of the night, Franson maneuvered a point shot through traffic in the middle frame for his first goal this season. "I think that's the best game I saw him play as a Maple Leaf," Carlyle praised. "You can't argue with the fact he's a big man and he was physical at times, he got the puck through and those are assets that he has and he's got to continue to grow into that." Determined to right the course after a frustrating first season in Toronto, the 25-year-old has stayed true to an optimistic outlook in the early stages this season despite continued inconsistent opportunity. A freak eye injury to Mike Komisarek (more on this below) propped open the door for him on Tuesday and he took full advantage. "It definitely makes you feel better about yourself and your game," he said. "Anytime you can have a night where things go your way like that it's going to help your game. I'll try and carry it through practice and hopefully into the next game."
3. With Clarke MacArthur out and James van Riemsdyk charged with manning the left side alongside Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak, McClement hustled up the lineup into a role on the wing with Mikhail Grabovski and Nik Kulemin. While their primary duty was slowing the Sabres top unit of Jason Pominville, Cody Hodgson and Thomas Vanek – who were held in check at even-strength, but scored on a power-play – the line managed to produce McClement's first with the Leafs. "I thought Jay McClement had his best game as a player on our side so far this year," said Carlyle, who doled out a season-high 17 minutes to the Toronto-area native. "He added a speed element to their group." Prior to the game, McClement noted the need for "second chances" at Miller. His goal was a product of such luck; a sequence which saw Kulemin dig out a puck from behind the goal, feed Kadri, who proceeded to ring it off the bar, finally concluding with McClement burying the rebound. "That's something we need to work on I think is getting second opportunities," he said prior to the game. Before Tuesday the 29-year-old had been utilized mostly in fourth-line duty with the requisite primary penalty killing duty. But with good speed and a knack for the defensive game, he should prove worthy of more ice as the season rolls on.
4. In addition to Lupul, a pair of Leafs sat out Tuesday's game with odd injuries. MacArthur had the nail torn off his pinky finger during Saturday's 5-2 loss to the Rangers. Infection concerns made it all but certain that he would sit out at least a game. Circle back to October 2011 and it was MacArthur who suffered an infection to his left elbow, a scary situation that saw his elbow balloon. Komisarek was also forced to miss the action in Buffalo with a mysterious injury that saw a piece of fiberglass land in his eye at the end of Monday's practice. The 31-year-old required a suture to close the wound and while he was eventually cleared to play on Tuesday morning, he sat out as a precaution. "It was one of those things that you'd like to take back in your life I think, when you do something stupid," Carlyle said, refusing to reveal further detail. "It was crazy."
5. Jake Gardiner rejoined the Leafs on Sunday - following a one-game stint with the Marlies - but did not play against the Sabres. "There's a need to get him back on track," Carlyle said Tuesday morning, "but I don't think there's any pressure on us to play Jake Gardiner in any of the situations that we're presented with right now." The challenge the Leafs face with Gardiner in the short-term is two-fold; he needs to play to find his game after being sidelined a month-plus (concussion), but because his game is not on point, he's ill-suited to be in the lineup. The most conceivable option for Gardiner is to rejoin the Marlies later this week when they return from the AHL All-Star break. "That's a decision we'll make," Carlyle said, noting the 22-year-old's performance as understandable given the lengthy time he missed. "We said jokingly, 'Well he spent six weeks on a couch'. And he probably did because that's what he was told to do. There was no exertion or exercise. And anybody that spends that time away from the game is going to take time to get their skills back and feet underneath him."
Quote of the Night
"I'm just yelling at him to go because I was looking up at the clock after I made it and I think there was like seven or eight seconds left."
-John-Michael Liles, recalling the final seconds of overtime.
27 shots and still no goals after six games for Phil Kessel. The 25-year-old has now matched his longest dry spell to begin a season, dating back to 2006-07, his rookie year in Boston. Kessel logged over 26 minutes on Tuesday, attempting seven shots with three hitting the net.
Carlyle said he made a mistake in New York on Saturday when he charged Dion Phaneuf and Mike Kostka with over 30 minutes of ice against the Rangers. He made an effort to balance the weight of responsibility on the back-end against Buffalo.
Phaneuf – 27:43
Kostka – 24:19
Liles – 24:20
Franson – 13:03
Carl Gunnarsson – 26:06
Mark Fraser – 14:29
Carlyle's biggest challenge appears to be finding a suitable partner for Gunnarsson. Liles took that place on Tuesday and while both logged steady minutes, the pair had trouble at times in the defensive zone.
Under the Radar
One interesting insight as it relates to the strategy of Carlyle, Rick St. Croix, and the Leafs goaltending this season. "The one thing that we've tried to do in our discussions over the summer months with Rick is 'We're not here to change people, we're here to refine what they're doing'," Carlyle said. "We are about being a little bit more aggressive in the crease, try to work the top of the crease versus six inches below it."
Making his third start in the last four games, James Reimer made 29 saves for the win in Buffalo.
The Leafs return home looking to break their winless streak at the Air Canada Centre versus the Capitals.