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Mike Harrington: For one period at least, Sabres put troubles against East aside

TORONTO -- The Sabres are a great tease. Just when you write them off and think it's really over this time for another season, you get a first period like Saturday night. You see the potential for the future and, frankly, you wonder why you haven't seen more of it the last 30-some games.

We're talking two lasers from Evander Kane, three assists from Jack Eichel and a Sam Reinhart goal on a power play unit that has ascended to second in the NHL.

The 3-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs was a badly need elixir. Let's face it, were it not for that completely-out-of-left-field comeback against the Sharks, this week would have rated as a complete disaster.

There was the stinker in New Jersey, what looked like a JV vs. the varsity beatdown by San Jose for 45 minutes until the stars aligned, and the pounding the Sabres took Thursday aginst Anaheim.

But now all of a sudden you're talking two wins in three games, a visit from the Canucks Sunday night and a critical trip to Ottawa Tuesday. Now all of a sudden, the Sabres are only five points back of Toronto for a wild-card when it could have been nine.

Frankly, a lot of Saturday's win looked like the Sabres got exceedingly sick of hearing about the Leafs. Who can blame them?

There was plenty of nastiness in this one. Rasmus Ristolainen and James van Riemsdyk, of all people, dropped the gloves in the first period. Nazem Kadri continues to be a pest and drove Brian Gionta hard into the boards, drawing Marcus Foglino's ire.

In the final five seconds, it was Ristolainen against mega prospects Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. There's two more meetings in Buffalo to come. Stay tuned.

"Great. Tight game. Physical game," Ristolainen said. "Both teams are competing for the same playoff spot. It sounds pretty exciting for me."

"There was no question we had a good start to the game and then they came out and came after Ristolainen," said a smiling coach Dan Bylsma. "You saw that at the end too with scrums around the net. They weren't worried about their defensemen not getting in there late in the game and needing a faceoff in the offensive zone. It was a pileup at the net a couple times and one you don't mind seeing."

The Leafs, of course, are riding the wave of one of the greatest rookie crops in recent NHL history. They entered the night with three of the top four in points (Marner, Matthews and William Nylander) and an astonishing six of the top 14 when you add in Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown and Zach Hyman.

Toronto rookies have combined for 208 points this season. Sabres rookies? Seven goals and 10 points.

The white-hot Kane's two goals gave the Sabres the quick jump they desperately needed in this one after losing their first two meetings with Toronto, including a blown 2-0 lead here last month. That one really stands as a symptom of their struggles all season against the Eastern Conference.

Buffalo is just 13-17-8 against the East but 10-5-2 against the West -- the best points percentage of any team in the Atlantic Division.

There's some clear holes on the Sabres' Eastern resume. While it's hard to quibble about that 1-4-1 against division-leading Montreal and Washington, it's their record against some of the lesser lights in the conference that's killing them.

That 0-4 against Boston -- with the final game played on New Year's Eve -- just about kept Claude Julien afloat for a few more weeks before the Bruins finally sent him packing Tuesday.

That combined 0-6-2 against Tampa Bay, New Jersey and Carolina is particularly grievous. The Sabres were 0-2 against the Leafs heading into Saturday.

Buffalo's shoddy play in the East is in stark contrast to its work against the West.

The Sabres have already won at Minnesota and Edmonton. They lost at Chicago in overtime, in a game they led inside the final 2 1/2 minutes of regulation. They still have all four of their games left against sadsacks Arizona and Colorado, and any team remotely still thinking playoffs should be talking about eight points in those games.

There's really no true theories on this. The West has long been known for what coaches like to call "heavy hockey" the last few years. Think Anaheim's 2007 Stanley Cup or the Los Angeles victories in 2012 and 2014. But teams in the East have been better this year. Washington is 12-2 against the West. Columbus is 16-5-3, the New York Rangers are 18-5.

Meanwhile, you wonder how much of a wall Toronto is hitting. With this loss, the Leafs are 4-5-3 in their last 12 games and 2-4-2 in the last eight. While the youngsters are still scoring, the defense remains ultra-vulnerable and goalie Frederik Andersen is mortal again; He entered Saturday at 4.45/.877 in four February games. and it's kind of surprising there wasn't a mercy pulling after the first period.

The Sabres need the Leafs to keep coming back to the pack. Having some hate for what should be their big rival has to help too, even if the principals aren't ready to make such a pronouncement.

"We're ticked off we're still five points behind," Reinhart said. "We were at seven and it could be either nine or five. That's all the motivation we needed. We're still right there. We've got to improve and tighten that gap but it started tonight."

The Sabres have been saying all year they're one big winning streak away from being in the thick of the race and they're right. The problem is that Saturday was game 55 and there's been two three-game winning streaks all season.

And there's that little issue of this franchise not putting together so much as a five-game winning streak since 2012 -- even though there's been 23 of them in the league so far this year. Yes, 23.

So it's not over yet. The Sabres keep hanging around. Even as they let another opponent get 40-plus shots on goal. Robin Lehner made 43 saves, stopping all 18 in the third period and the Sabres got out of town with exactly what they needed: Two points in regulation.

"This time of year, games really matter and it's a good thing we find ways like that," Ristolainen said. "You don't want to lay back when it's 3-0 but Lehner had a huge game for us. We have to keep going."

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