By Bill Hoppe
BUFFALO — Nine seconds, an eternity for a goal-mouth scramble, elapsed from Sabres rookie Marcus Foligno’s initial run at the net to Jordan Leopold’s final poke past Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Ben Scrivens on Tuesday inside a roaring First Niagara Center.
In these parts, if the Sabres win the final two regular-season contests, get some help and secure that unlikely playoff berth, the tying goal with 1:53 left in their wild 6-5 overtime triumph could become part of Buffalo hockey lore.
“I guess the big guy upstairs is looking after us,” Leopold joked after the ninth-place Sabres moved into a points tie (88) with the Washington Capitals, who hold the tiebreaker and the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.
Derek Roy’s power-play winner secured an unlikely victory in which the Sabres trailed 3-0 in the first period and 5-3 with barely five minutes left in regulation.
“That’s not how you draw them up, but that was a hell of a way to win,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “That game had everything.”
Roy’s overtime tally, his second score, almost felt like a formality. Leopold’s goal really beat the Leafs.
The 20-year-old Foligno, a star just 13 games into his career, created the goal and wreaked havoc from the get-go, knocking Carl Gunnarsson out of the contest with a wicked hit only 10 seconds in.
“I think he single-handedly helped this team win,” said Ruff, who called it Foligno’s best NHL performance.
After Alexander Sulzer’s second goal made it 5-4 with 5:03 left in regulation, Foligno showcased some of his best attributes in generating the epic scrum.
First, he beat Mike Komisarek to a loose puck, outmuscling and pushing the defenseman down. Then he grabbed the puck and jammed it at Scrivens.
The wild scramble was on.
“I didn’t think it was to get through anybody,” Scrivens said.
Komisarek got up and knocked Foligno to the ice and kept hitting him so he couldn’t take a second whack.
“I think the ref was watching how many times I got punched in the face and he was in awe,” Foligno cracked.
With a clear view beside the net of about 10 bodies battling wildly, the referee never whistled the play dead.
“The puck was moving around,” Leopold said. “You could hear their guys, our guys saying, ‘The puck’s over here. The puck’s over there.’ So I took a stab at it and hit it.”
Ruff added: “That might be one of the most incredible displays I’ve seen right there of trying to find the puck, wherever it was at.”
Officials owed the Sabres for a quick whistle earlier this season, Ruff joked.
“It finally evened out,” he said.
The Sabres play Thursday in Philadelphia as Washington, which still controls its own destiny, hosts the Florida Panthers. The Sabres finish the regular season Saturday in Boston, hours before the Capitals close in New York against the Rangers.
The Sabres could also catch Florida, which needs a single point to secure its first playoff spot in 12 years.
It promises to be a crazy few days.
For much of Tuesday, the Sabres appeared cooked and on the brink of elimination.
They couldn’t build off early hits and ferocious scraps from Foligno and fellow rookie Brayden McNabb.
Tyler Bozak scored at 6:13 and 14:49, stunning the capacity crowd of 18,690 fans. Matt Frattin followed, completing the Gordie Howe hat trick – a goal, assist and fight – 16:42 into the game!
“We got scared,” Ruff said. “I think when you see one go in right away and then you make that next big mistake. It was like we didn’t want to make any more plays.”
What happened that wretched first period?
“We didn’t yell or shout or anything,” Sabres goalie Ryan Miller said. “We just looked at each other and said, ‘Really? That’s how we’re going to come out with our back against the wall in the playoffs?’”
Ruff added: “Our goal was to get a goal in the first 10 minutes, get back in the hockey game – right the ship and try to play in their end. I thought from that point on we were on our toes.”
Tyler Ennis tallied on the power play at 4:46, and then Sulzer made it 3-2.
But the Sabres, who pumped 19 shots on Scrivens during the second period and 45 overall, couldn’t get the equalizer.
Former Sabre Clarke MacArthur made 4-2 early in the third period, but Roy’s first power-play score got the Sabres within one again about a minute later.
Then Jake Gardiner’s score appeared to cement the game at 10:39.
On the bench, the Sabres knew they were playing for the season.
“That’s where you dig down deep, say that to yourself and find energy,” said Roy, who was tackled by a jubilant Miller after scoring 3:29 into overtime.