By Bill Hoppe
It’s no longer a lopsided rivalry. Never mind the Sabres triumphed again over the Toronto Maple Leafs, beating the upstart club 5-4 on Friday before a wild bipartisan crowd of 18,690 fans inside the First Niagara Center.
The Sabres’ 30th post-lockout win against the Leafs – the first in four tries over their closest combatant – was a scintillating affair, with the Leafs grabbing two second-period leads before the Sabres roared back to win just their seventh game at the FNC this season.
If their other five meetings this season can approach this one, fans will be treated to some special hockey.
Friday’s tilt could go down as the best between the teams in years. Incredibly, the Sabres skated out for pregame warm-ups to booing. With Leafs fans possibly outnumbering the Sabres supporters, the building rarely stopped buzzing, each side trying to outdo the other.
“It’s awesome. Anytime there’s life in the building players can feel it,” said Sabres winger Thomas Vanek, who tallied two goals and four points, including the winner 15:44 into the third period. “They know when there’s energy in the building. Those are fun games to play.”
Sabres winger Jason Pominville added: “It’s been awhile since it’s been this loud. It’s great. Our fans were going and they would get going. Our fans would try to top them. It was pretty impressive.”
Most importantly for the Sabres, who have 12 home losses this season, they responded to adversity in their own rink.
They tied the game twice in the second period. They buckled down when the Leafs whittled the two-goal lead down twice during the third period, once on Nikolai Kulemin’s penalty shot.
“We followed goals against up with big efforts. … We followed up mishaps with big plays,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “The transition in the game was great. The speed of the game from both teams was really good. …
“Both teams went after it. That was a game where we owed our fans a little bit. Unfortunately, we have a little bit to Toronto fans tonight.”
Individually, Vanek began dominating the game after Phil Kessel caught him flat-footed on Joffrey Lupul’s goal.
“Obviously, I was pretty upset about what I did there,” Vanek said. “That’s the only way you can help your teammates out, by burying another one.”
The Sabres, who begin a stretch of five of the next six on the road tonight in Pittsburgh, finally showcased some swagger they closed a five-game homestand.
“We need to get our swagger back, especially when we have the lead,” Vanek said. “Sometimes that’s all it takes. There’s no miracle to it. Everyone’s a good player in here.”
But even in the loss, the slick Leafs, who began the night two points better than the Sabres, sent a loud message they’re for real.
“They’re much improved,” said Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, who made 29 stops. “But we saw that happening last year, when they turned it on late.”
Minutes after Lupul scored 1:49 into the second period, Drew Stafford’s power-play goal, his 100th NHL score but just his third in 26 games, tied it.
When Dion Phaneuf, who was later ejected for boarding Zack Kassian, a hit Ruff called “suspendable,” restored the Leafs’ lead, Vanek tied it 19 seconds later. Kassian was OK.
Phaneuf’s power-play goal was the first the Sabres allowed to the Leafs in 49 tries, an NHL-long stretch dating back to March 27, 2009.
Tyler Ennis’ score up two men made it 3-2 at 14:08. Then Andrej Sekera’s power-play goal at 18:01 gave the Sabres their first two-goal advantage.
The Sabres, two of 18 and zero of their last 11 on the power play entering the game, sorely needed a strong performance.
“We’ve been struggling trying to convert and finish and try to make a difference,” Ruff said. “It finally made a difference for us.”
As the game wore on, the fans upped the intensity. Luckily for the Sabres, with the place bonkers following Mikhail Grabovski’s goal 16:15 into the third period, they closed it out.
“Our fans stepped up pretty well,” Miller said. “It’s hard to match the rowdiness that comes with that level of Leafs fans showing up. It was good. We definitely gave them something to cheer about tonight.”