BUFFALO, N.Y. â€” Sabres forward Jack Eichel would like to thank the thousands of Maple Leafs fans who showed up in Buffalo to provide an electric environment to what’s been a difficult season.
And Eichel was more than pleased to send the “Go, Leafs, Go!” chanting contingent back across the border unhappy following a 5-2 win Saturday night.
“This is our building and obviously want to play well here,” Eichel said. “I think there was a little bit of extra emotion in our game tonight, extra intensity. And it’s good to see. … It’s nice to beat them.”
Eichel scored twice and set up another in dousing the celebratory atmosphere and slowing the youth-laden Maple Leafs’ late-season surge to clinch just their second playoff berth in 12 seasons.
Ryan O’Reilly and Dmitry Kulikov each had a goal and assist, and Evander Kane also scored in a game the Sabres took control of by scoring three straight times in the second period. Robin Lehner stopped 32 shots, and the Sabres continued their home dominance over their cross-border rivals by improving to 18-2-1 against Toronto in their last 21 games at Buffalo.
The Maple Leafs’ hold on third place in the Atlantic Division dwindled in having a three-game winning streak end and losing in regulation for just the second time in their past 10 (7-2-1).
With 85 points, Toronto has a one-point edge over Boston after the Bruins beat the New York Islanders.
“We know the importance of every game here and to come out and put yourself in a position where you’re playing catch-up basically all night is tough,” Toronto defenceman Morgan Rielly said. “We want to be better. We expect ourselves to be better than that.”
Auston Matthews scored his 34th to tie Toronto’s single-season rookie record set by Wendel Clark in 1985-86. Matthews matched the mark in the same arena the Maple Leafs selected the player from Scottsdale, Arizona, with the No. 1 pick in the draft last June.
Connor Brown also scored for Toronto.
Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen allowed two goals on 16 shots in the opening period and did not return for the second after sustaining an upper-body injury. He appeared to be hurt during a collision with Buffalo forward William Carrier.
Coach Mike Babcock had no immediate update on Andersen’s injury, saying the player would have to first undergo tests.
What Babcock was sure of was Andersen’s injury having no effect on the outcome.
“This is all on us,” he said. “They were better. They skated better. They were quicker. They responded after we scored. They looked prepared. We didn’t. Period.”
Curtis McElhinney took over and promptly gave up two power-play goals on the first eight shots he faced.
After Matthews scored 2:22 into the period to tie it at 2, Eichel scored 26 seconds later. He was set up in the left circle by Kulikov and snapped a shot in over McElhinney’s right shoulder.
Kulikov then put Buffalo up 4-2 four minutes later by firing a 30-footer through a crowd and beating McElhinney inside the left post.
Eichel capped the second-period run by scoring on a snapshot from the right circle with 6:48 left.
McElhinney allowed three goals on 22 in the loss.
Thanks to the Maple Leafs fans making the trip across the Niagara River, the Sabres enjoyed a playoff-like atmosphere at a time they’re in jeopardy of missing the post-season for a sixth consecutive year.
During the pregame skate, several fans unfurled a large banner reading “MITCH!!!” in honour of Maple Leafs rookie Mitchell Marner behind the Sabres bench. At one point, the Sabres turned up the volume on the music played between whistles to drown out the pro-Toronto chants.
The Sabres then did their part to mute their opposing fans further.
O’Reilly opened the scoring. And then after Brown tied the game 9:30 in, Kane responded by scoring 15 seconds later.
With five minutes left, many of the Toronto fans had exited the building.
“That’s the fun part,” said Sabres forward Tyler Ennis. “The goal is to keep it quiet.”
NOTES: Sabres RW Kyle Okposo had two assists in returning after missing 10 games with a rib injury. Kulikov played his 500th game in returning after missing nine with an upper-body injury. … Maple Leafs C William Nylander assisted on Matthews’ goal to extend his rookie franchise-record streak to 11 games in which he has four goals and nine assists. … Buffalo recalled D Brady Austin from AHL Rochester, and demoted RW Hudson Fasching.
Maple Leafs: Host Florida Panthers on Tuesday.
Sabres: Host Florida Panthers on Monday.
For more NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey
John Wawrow, The Associated Press