BUFFALO – The Leafs won't sweat the results of the NHL skills competition.
"Our message right now is not to get too high or too low in a shootout victory or loss," Mark Fraser said. "We generally feel like we played a good game, just fell short."
Of the six losses the Leafs have felled in the past seven games, three have come via the shootout, including a 5-4 defeat at the hands of the Sabres at First Niagara Center on Thursday night. Charging hard with speed, Steve Ott tucked a backhand past James Reimer in the sixth round of shooters to seal the decision.
It was a wild night.
Hard-nosed fisticuffs, coarse physical play, lost leads, lost forwards, a rare off-night from the penalty kill and a valiant comeback defined the evening for the Leafs.
"You have to commend our group on their work ethic," said Randy Carlyle.
After topping the Lightning at home on Wednesday night, the Leafs were happy to scratch out a point, especially in light of trying circumstance. Already without the suspended Joffrey Lupul for the second end of a back-to-back set, they lost Colton Orr (game misconduct for his pre-emptive scrap with Patrick Kaleta) and Leo Komarov (upper-body injury) for more than half of Thursday's game. With Frazer McLaren rarely seeing action beyond the early stages of the second, just nine forwards were in regular rotation.
In spite of that, the Leafs actually had a 3-1 lead midway through the middle period before the Sabres scored three unanswered to vault in front. Nazem Kadri erased the deficit and knotted the score at four with his second of two early in the third, the two clubs scratching and clawing 'til the very end in their final meeting of the season.
It wasn't pretty, it wasn't perfect, but the Leafs will happily take the point, now with 35 on the season, good for sixth best in the Eastern Conference.
1. The dream continues
Three more points for Nazem Kadri, including his 12th and 13th goals this season. Kadri leads the Leafs with 33 points in 31 games this season and now ranks eighth in league scoring. "He still has some things that we would like to cure," Carlyle said following the game, "but as we talk about all the time the positives far outweigh the negatives. He's got to continue to grow and he can't stop." The 22-year-old finished a slick passing play from Nik Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur for the Leafs second goal, adding his second of the night off a deflected Cody Franson point shot to tie the game. "The other stuff really doesn't matter if we're not getting wins," Kadri said. "One point is better than none and adds up a lot quicker than none. We'll take what we can get and move forward."
2. Rare misfire for Leaf PK
Nearly unbeatable with a 92 per cent mark in the previous 20 games, the Leafs penalty kill had a rare off-night against the Sabres. For the first time since February 5, the emerging special teams unit allowed two goals on the man advantage, this against a Buffalo power-play that ranked 30th overall entering the night. "Our penalty killing has been a strong suit of ours for a good part of this year," Carlyle said. "Tonight it wasn't." Tyler Ennis scored the first marker with one second remaining on a Fraser penalty late in the first, Jay McClement and John-Michael Liles both straying behind the goal to leave Ennis open in front, who then proceeded to beat Reimer five-hole. Christian Ehrhoff added the second early in the final frame, a point shot that sailed through with Ott camped out in front.
3. Defensive issues
Thursday marked the eighth time in the past 11 games that the Leafs have allowed at least four games, a seemingly concerning trend. "We scored four goals and we should win a hockey game," said Carlyle, noting the rare two goals yielded on the penalty kill. The Leafs have fallen to 17th in goals against this season (2.81 per game). "I think we can buckle down a little bit on that," said Kadri, "but for the most part I think actually we're doing a pretty good job. We're making them earn their goals and not giving them easy ones. Just some plays, our lapses, they don't really capitalize and score on, it's just when we get hemmed in our zone and then momentum changes."
4. Reimer's night
James Reimer fell short for the third time in three shootouts this season, yielding the winner to Ott, who burst in with speed before finishing with a backhand. "As a goalie losing in a shootout never is fun because it's kind of all on shoulders for lack of a better word. Really you have to forget. When you win a shootout you can't get too high and when you lose a shootout you can't get too low." Reimer is 3-7 career in the skills competition, posting a .667 save percentage in three defeats this season.
Shootout aside, Reimer made 32 stops on 36 shots, at his best in the third period (13 saves) and overtime. The 25-year-old has allowed four goals in five of his seven starts upon return from a left knee injury. "What I take from it is how I played in the last 10 minutes of the third and in overtime," said Reimer, who owns a .916 save percentage this season. "It had that playoff atmosphere and it was obviously a lot of fun to play, you're just trying to make that next save."
5. Lupul suspension
Joffrey Lupul figured he'd get a game for his illegal hit on Victor Hedman – with no previous suspensions or highly questionable hits – but the NHL's Department of Player Safety came down with a two-game punishment, the first of which he served in Buffalo. "At the end of the day it was a hit where I hit him in the head and that's illegal now," said Lupul. The 29-year-old was, however, perturbed with one aspect of the ruling. "It's a little frustrating when they say I targeted his head in the explanation," he said. "It's an easy thing to say if you've never played hockey or played at a high level. And [if] you break it down frame by frame it does look like you target the head, but truly it's a split-second reaction. He was coming into the middle, I decided last second to throw a hit and I tried to throw good hockey hit, shoulder to shoulder. And to be honest I thought I did until I saw after the game that I did get his head."
Quote of the Night
"Our message right now is not to get too high or too low in a shootout victory or loss. We generally feel like we played a good game, just fell short."
-Mark Fraser, on the Leafs third shootout loss this season.
8: Points for Nazem Kadri during a current three-game point streak (two goals, six assists).
4: Points for Tyler Bozak during a current four-game point streak (three goals, one assist).
7: Points in the past 24 games for Mikhail Grabovski, who scored his seventh of the season against Buffalo.
29-19: Leafs vs. opposition in first periods.
28-36: Leafs vs. opposition in third periods.
61-69: Penalty kill over the past 21 games.
0: Goals for Matt Frattin in six games upon return from a left knee injury. Frattin had seven goals in his first 10 games this season.
2-1-2: Record vs. Buffalo this season.
21:30: Cody Franson, a season-high.
The Leafs host the Bruins at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday, looking to snap an eight-game winless skid against Boston.