For the last month or so, it's felt like the best season of Drew Stafford's career. The numbers now back up that theory.
The Buffalo Sabres winger scored twice in Tuesday's 4-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, pushing his goal total to a career-high 17. Only Thomas Vanek and Derek Roy have more for Buffalo this year.
In 21 games since the turn of the new year, Stafford has 18 points (nine goals, nine assists). He has 37 points for the season, one off his personal mark set last year with 24 games still left on the schedule.
"As long as I'm contributing, especially now with Thomas out, that's good," Stafford said. "We're going to need all the goals we can get. If that's what I'm going to be contributing, then so be it. It's not going to happen every night but we have a lot of guys who can do it in the scoring department. I'm just trying to do my part."
With goaltender Ryan Miller doing all of the heavy lifting for his team to that point, Stafford and Jason Pominville combined to change the momentum with the game's first goal.
Pominville cruised behind the net and bugged Toronto defenseman John Mitchell just enough to get the puck into the slot. Stafford hopped in on it, whirled and fired a quick snap shot that beat Leafs rookie goalie Justin Pogge.
"It came off a great forecheck by Jason," Stafford said. "I almost ran into the referee. I kind of had him in my trolley tracks there for a second but it worked out well because the puck squirted free and I just kind of turned around and shot it."
On a power play in the third period, Tim Connolly and Stafford combined to work a rebound free from Pogge after Jaroslav Spacek's strong shot from the point. Stafford eventually slid the puck around Pogge and calmly potted a backhand to give Buffalo an insurance goal at 7:37.
"I was just hanging around the net being a net rat," Stafford said. "It's greasy but I'll take it. It's one of the good bounces that we finally got on the power play. We were waiting for one of those. We had been getting pucks to the net but we hadn't gotten any good rebound bounces so that was good."
Pominville, by the way, has become Buffalo's iron man in the wake of Vanek's broken jaw. Pominville played in his team-best 227th consecutive game Tuesday; his last absence was as a healthy scratch against Philadelphia on April 7, 2006.
Pominville had a goal wiped out late in the first period when officials ruled he directed a Jochen Hecht pass into the net with his arm as he was being held by a Toronto defenseman. Replay affirmed the ruling on the ice.
The net came off its moorings just after the puck went into the net as Pominville crashed into it but that did not factor into the decision.
It's getting to be that time of year. Just 15 days before the March 4 trading deadline, there were scouts from 12 teams listed on the press box roster.
The visiting eyes probably were watching both sides: The Leafs are expected to be sellers under new General Manager Brian Burke while the Sabres certainly could be in the market to add something if they stay in the top eight of the Eastern Conference.
There were two scouts on hand from the Chicago Blackhawks. Also represented were Vancouver, Carolina, Calgary, Pittsburgh, San Jose, Florida, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Dallas, Anaheim and Minnesota.
West Seneca's Lee Stempniak has gone scoreless in nine of his last 10 games for the Leafs. He tallied twice Thursday at Tampa Bay. Stempniak has seven goals and nine assists in 37 games for Toronto since his November trade from St. Louis.
The Leafs have an even goal differential in the second and third periods of their games. Things are vastly different in the first period as Buffalo's 3-0 edge Tuesday gave Toronto opponents a huge 71-40 advantage this season. The Sabres, meanwhile, are plus-13 in the first period (57-44) and a combined minus-3 in the second and third.
Daniel Paille's first-period goal and assist gave him a multipoint game for the first time since Dec. 22. . . . The Sabres are 21-8-3 when scoring first and 9-14-3 when the opponent does. . . . It was Nathan Gerbe's 10th game with the Sabres without a goal, and the fourth game of his return stint to the NHL. His roster spot would appear to be in jeopardy when Paul Gaustad returns, perhaps Thursday in Philadelphia. . . . South Buffalo native Tim Kennedy has been named Player of the Week in the American Hockey League after collecting 10 points in four games. Kennedy had five goals, five assists and was plus-5 as Portland went 2-0-2.