The importance of goaltending can't be overstated. Yet another example of why played out Tuesday.
The Toronto Maple Leafs exited their Air Canada Centre dressing room determined to impress the Buffalo Sabres. Their effort in the previous meeting was laughable (a 5-0 Buffalo victory), so the fast start was expected.
The Leafs invaded the Sabres' zone time and again during the opening 12 minutes. Shots flew from left and right. In the middle was Ryan Miller.
The goaltender was the Sabres' best player early, a good thing considering he had to be. He patrolled the crease with confidence and turned aside the Leafs' 11-shot flurry.
Toronto finally slowed down, Miller's teammates eventually caught up with a three-goal opening period, and the result was a 4-1 victory by the Sabres.
"You look at some of the acrobatic saves he made, it could have been 3-nothing the other way at the end of the first period, and maybe it's a completely different story," Sabres defenseman Chris Butler said. "But I think he gave us a lot of confidence, and about the midway point there of the first period we really started rolling."
The victory moved the Sabres into a four-way tie for fifth place in the Eastern Conference. Buffalo, Florida, Montreal and the New York Rangers all have 66 points.
"The guys understood what these games are starting to mean," said Miller, who finished with 27 saves. "In our book it's about moving up and moving forward, and that's the highest we've been in a long time this season. We're pretty proud of the effort, and we've got a lot more challenges ahead."
It was no surprise Miller was the better goaltender Tuesday. He's among the league leaders in several categories, including victories and saves. His counterpart, Justin Pogge, is a rookie who struggles in the minors and was playing just his fourth NHL game.
Miller kept his teammates in the game, while Pogge eventually let his down.
The score was 3-0 before Toronto fans among the 19,287 in attendance could discuss which players General Manager Brian Burke should ship out of town. (Observers in the Centre of the Hockey Universe say the list is long and the team will be active at the March 4 deadline.)
The Sabres scored three times in 5:04, with Drew Stafford starting it. Daniel Paille, who had just one goal in the previous 20 games, made it 2-0.
The infuriating goal for Leafs fans came from Matt Ellis with 2:16 left in the first. The center was out of passing options, so he sent the puck toward Pogge from the goal line, and it went through the netminder's legs.
The predictable mock cheer came a minute later, when Pogge stopped a harmless dump-in from center ice.
Pogge rebounded to spark the Leafs in the second period and allowed them to cut their deficit to 3-1. He made glove saves on Stafford and Tim Connolly to earn real cheers and was unbeaten during Buffalo's 13-shot frame. He finished with 26 saves.
"It was pretty evident that he was nervous, especially on the third goal," Toronto coach Ron Wilson said. "I was really happy to see the way he responded in the second and third periods."
The Leafs solved Miller midway through the second on the power play. Jason Blake took a pass at the side of the net, waited for defenseman Pavel Kubina to pinch from the blue line and fed him for a tap-in.
The third period was Miller time again, as he stopped point-blank chances on Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov. Stafford put the game out of reach with a power-play goal with 12:23 to go.
The Sabres' two-game road trip continues Thursday when they visit goaltender Martin Biron and the Philadelphia Flyers.
"We'll enjoy it tonight, but it's back to work tomorrow to get prepared for Philly," Ellis said. "That's what it's about down the stretch."
>Sabres 4, Leafs 1
Slap shots: Sabres improve to 10-3-1 in Toronto since start of 2005-06 season. ... Miller is sharp early, allows teammates to catch up and solve Pogge. ... Stafford scores twice to set career high with 17 goals.
Fast fact: The Sabres have a 13-goal advantage in first periods, outscoring opponents, 57-44.
Next: at Philadelphia Flyers, 7 p.m. Thursday in Wachovia Center.