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Leafs feel right at home Buffalo squanders power-play goals in loss to divisional rival

Maybe when Erie County handed over HSBC Arena's lease to the Buffalo Sabres it didn't include domestic rights to the Toronto Maple Leafs after all.

The Sabres apparently don't own their big rivals at home any more. The Maple Leafs worked over their usually inhospitable hosts Thursday night, never trailing in a 4-2 victory before a divided arena crowd of 18,690.

True, the sleepy-eyed Sabres were playing on back-to-back nights while the Maple Leafs had Wednesday off. But the Sabres also feature three All-Star starters and had just gone on the road to beat the injury-ravaged Maple Leafs in the same situation five days earlier.

"The schedule is what it is, but we didn't play good enough," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "We've been in a lot of those situations where we've been able to win. We made too many mistakes. . . . We just weren't sharp."

More troubling than that for Sabres fans is a developing trend. The Sabres have won once in their past seven home games against Northeast Division opponents. Overall in the division, they are 8-7 with an overtime loss. Sixteen of their remaining 38 games are within the division.

"It's a long schedule," Sabres co-captain Chris Drury said. "You want to win every game you play. There's certainly a little more emphasis with the rivalries within the division. But I wouldn't trade wins against the Central Division or the Southeast Division just to get wins against these guys."

Toronto also won in its first visit here Nov. 4 and lost the day before Thanksgiving. Buffalo had been 18-5-3 over Toronto since moving from Memorial Auditorium and 26-9-4 over the past 21 seasons.

"Based on our first game of the season, we have some confidence, as much as you can against that team," Leafs coach Paul Maurice said. "They don't lose very many games."

Thomas Vanek and Drury each scored on power plays and co-lead the team with 23 goals. But Buffalo's rare man-advantage eruption -- the first time it scored more than one in three weeks -- was wasted.

The Leafs, minus six regulars, won for only the fourth time in 11 games. Jeff O'Neill scored two goals off passes from Mats Sundin, helping the captain climb into third place behind Darryl Sittler and Borje Salming on the Leafs' all-time assists list.

Andrew Raycroft made 22 saves for the Leafs, while Martin Biron stopped 24 shots.

"They were a little more desperate than we were," Sabres center Daniel Briere said. "It was one of those nights. We have to forget about it and move on. It's going to happen once in a while. All season, teams come to play us and we see their best. We're fine with that. Tonight, we didn't have the same jump we usually have."

Nonetheless, the Sabres were even up with the Leafs early in the third period.

Drury scored the Sabres' second power-play goal to tie the game at 2:49 of the third period, moments after he hit the left post and then missed an open net while hurried in a busy slot. Derek Roy made a pass from below the goal line to the top of the crease to set up Drury's team-leading 10th power-play goal.

But the Leafs answered 2:31 later. Alex Steen delivered a point-blank shot past Biron's glove for the eventual winner. O'Neill sealed the game with his second goal with 9:32 to play.

"The legs weren't going as much as we wanted them to go," Biron said. "It was maybe one of those nights where myself has to go out there and maybe steal a game. . . . It didn't happen."

The Sabres extended their power-play slump to 16 before they were able to break through. Early in the first period they squandered a five-on-three chance that lasted 75 seconds, generating one shot on both power plays.

"We'd like to have that one back," Drury said. "We weren't on the same page at all."

Toronto took its first lead 21 seconds after the first intermission. Sundin was in the left circle when he fed O'Neill at the far post for the tip.

Three minutes later, Buffalo's penalty killers faced a 59-second, five-on-three power play and quashed it.

Buffalo tied the score and ended its power-play skid at 6:01 of the second period. The sequence began with Jaroslav Spacek's drive from the blue line. Briere got a piece of the puck, and Raycroft appeared to corral it. But Vanek was on the doorstep and scored as Leafs defenseman Bryan McCabe knocked him down.

The Leafs picked up a power-play goal from Pavel Kubina to take a 2-1 lead with 4:18 to go in the second.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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