By Bill Hoppe
Make no mistake, despite 39 more games on their 2011-12 schedule, the clock’s already started ticking on the 11th-place Sabres.
Every contest is a must-win affair. They have little margin for error over the next 11 weeks.
And just as the Sabres have finally started playing well at home, they’re beginning a make-or-break seven-game road trip.
“We’re at a point that we need to win games, and we know how demanding this trip is going to be,” coach Lindy Ruff said prior to the Sabres’ tight 3-2 triumph over the Toronto Maple Leafs before a capacity crowd of 18,690 bipartisan fans inside the First Niagara Center.
One last win at home, their first victory in four games overall and just the third in 12 tries, was the perfect sendoff to New York for tonight’s tilt against the Islanders. The Sabres, 4-0-3 in their last seven home games, don’t play here again until Feb. 1.
“We want to get on a role. We believe in this room,” said Sabres captain Jason Pominville, who scored the winner 14:13 into the second period. “There’s no better team to do it against than these guys, especially at home. We’re not going to be here a while.
“To come out with a win and go on the road and try to turn things around, it’s going to be an important stretch. So hopefully we can build off this.”
With 43 points, the Sabres trail eighth-place Washington by five. The sense of urgency, something Ruff talked about Friday morning, was evident early.
Almost nine hours after Ruff spoke, the Sabres pounced on the upstart Leafs, a team that had blanked them Tuesday in Toronto, at the get-go.
The Sabres led 1-0 just 1:05 in and 2-0 at 3:53.
Still, the Leafs roared back, tying it by the 16:52 mark.
Later, Pominville, an NHL All-Star selection Thursday, scored his 15th goal, converting linemate Thomas Vanek’s nifty pass from the right corner near the far side of the crease.
“It was just a great look,” Pominville said. “It landed right on my stick, just kind of a tap-in.”
The Sabres, adept at creating chances but not converting them, finally received some luck, too.
Matt Ellis scored from behind the goal line, his backhander deflecting off the Leafs’ Cody Franson and past goalie Jonas Gustavsson.
“I was actually trying to center it to Patty (Kaleta), and then it hit a skate and found the back of the net,” Ellis said. “Those are bounces you need. It got us on the board tonight.”
Then Paul Gaustad scored from the right circle, his pedestrian shot fooling Gustavsson.
Some good fortune went a long way.
“It’s huge,” Ellis said. “I think there were smiles all down the bench, kind of a big sigh of relief. It seems like over the last stretch the bounces have been going against us. We were able to create a few bounces of our own tonight.”
Some breaks got the Leafs, six points ahead of the Sabres, back into it, though.
Luke Schenn’s slap pass bounced perfectly off the end boards to Mikhail Grabovski at 14:06, and he beat Sabres goalie Ryan Miller easily.
Joey Crabb followed at 16:52, converting Grabovski’s pass after Nikolai Kulemin tripped Mike Weber in the slot.
“We kept our composure,” Pominville said. “We weren’t playing bad, (just) an unfortunate bounce on one of their goals. I thought we stuck with it, kept our composure. It was fun to see the guys keep their composure.”
Miller added: “We’ll take anything right now. I think that can be a good way to win a hockey game. In this league, I don’t think you can really count too many teams out. So you have to stick with it. You have to have an attitude that bad things do happen.”
The Sabres, who’ve endured an astonishing rash of injuries recently, couldn’t escape the game unscathed, however. Rookie Brayden McNabb is likely out tonight with a possible concussion after colliding with Nazem Kadri during the second period.
The defenseman went to the NHL-mandated quiet room, returned briefly and then left again.
“We sent him right to the room, put him right in the corner,” Ruff joked. “It’s nice to have a sense of humor about it.”