The Buffalo Sabres' woebegone power play didn't need to score, and their beleaguered penalty killers came up huge at critical times.
On Saturday night, however, a heap of penalties nearly cost them a third straight setback against a team missing five regulars.
The Sabres scored four times at even strength to take a two-goal lead well into the third period against the patchwork Toronto Maple Leafs, yet needed to hold on for a 4-3 white-knuckler in the Air Canada Centre.
"It wasn't the prettiest game, but in the end all that matters is the win," said Sabres center Daniel Briere, who had a goal and an assist. Dmitri Kalinin, Chris Drury and Ales Kotalik also scored to make sure Buffalo didn't lose three in a row for the first time.
Although the Sabres thwarted six power plays, they heard enough whistles to give the Leafs eight chances. Pavel Kubina converted the Leafs' last power play with 4:32 left in the game to bring them within striking distance.
The Leafs came inches away from sending the game into overtime.
With 20 seconds left in the game and Sabres goalie Martin Biron down and out, Leafs forward John Pohl hit the side of a net so open the goal horn went off in anticipation.
"I can't tell you what was going through my mind because you couldn't print it," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "But it was somewhere along 'Holy chaos!' "
Biron made 32 saves, including 15 in the first period. His biggest stop was coming out of the crease, forcing Pohl to the outside on bumpy, late-game ice.
"I was laying on my back and just looking up at the roof and the banners," Biron said. "I heard the [horn] and I looked back disappointed the puck went in. But it was behind the net and they were still playing, so I figured something was not right."
Leafs coach Paul Maurice said, "I was thinking, 'He's got him beat. He's got him beat.' I could see the motion of the stick and heard the horn go off. Then, all of a sudden, you're not as happy as you thought you were."
The Sabres' power play couldn't find momentum in Toronto. It misfired on all five chances. Buffalo had two in rapid succession in the second period but produced one shot.
Buffalo's harried penalty killers fared much better. The only other time they were beaten on their busy night was an Alexander Steen five-on-three rebound conversion to make the score 3-2 with 7:07 left in the second period.
Ruff wouldn't criticize his players' discipline in being penalized 10 times for 23 minutes. The reigning Jack Adams Trophy winner wasn't too pleased with referees Tom Kowal and Chris Lee.
"We'll win it any way we can," Ruff said. "It was tough. . . . [The referees] gave them a couple calls that gave them five-on-threes that I didn't like. I thought that gave them a little momentum when their power play wasn't going very good."
Leafs goalie Andrew Raycroft stopped 25 shots, but had trouble locating the high ones.
Kalinin, once considered a two-way weapon, ended a 34-game goal drought 4:18 into the game. With a penalty about to be called on Toronto, he blasted a slap shot on which Raycroft laid neither eyes nor leather.
Drury gave Buffalo a two-goal advantage 39 seconds later on a shot from the right boards just inside the blue line. The puck traveled through a peephole of light, sailing into the far corner.
Sabres winger Thomas Vanek had two glorious chances at padding the lead with 7:52 left in the first period. He had Raycroft beat on the doorstep, but the puck rolled off his stick. Vanek then tried to jam the puck inside the post from the side of the net, but Raycroft somehow snagged the puck on the goal line and pulled it toward his supine torso.
Toronto defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo scored with 2:11 to go in the first. His soft wrister from between the tops of the circles made it through a mass of humanity and eluded Biron's glove.
Briere put Buffalo ahead, 3-1, on a nifty goal 3:47 into the second period. Vanek set up the co-captain, who skated across the top of the crease and induced Raycroft to the ice before slipping a shot into the gaping net. Briere's 16th goal was only his second in 14 games.
Kotalik scored with 1:43 left in the second. He picked up a puck from along the boards that had trickled into Toronto's zone and come to an abrupt stop at the top of the left circle. His wicked shot zipped over the kneeling Raycroft's left shoulder.