Discipline, Jason Pominville said, isn't just staying out of the penalty box. It's also about paying attention to detail, maintaining focus.
The Buffalo Sabres' discipline -- one of the traits that has shined through during their rise to a playoff spot -- disappeared Tuesday.
The Sabres not only went to the box seven times, they allowed the Toronto Maple Leafs to take advantage of numerous defensive and system-wide lapses.
It was no wonder, then, the sellout crowd walked out of Air Canada Centre breathing a sigh of relief because its team was still breathing.
The Leafs avoided virtual elimination by beating the Sabres, 4-3. The loss prevented Buffalo from pulling into a seventh-place tie with the New York Rangers, who visit HSBC Arena tonight with a two-point lead.
"Right back at it," Pominville said, "and we've got to be better."
There are plenty of places to start. Goaltender Ryan Miller allowed his worst goal in some time just 1:34 in. He had little chance to stop a couple of other tallies as the Sabres got caught flat-footed and watched the Leafs skate by them.
The victory pulled the 10th-place Leafs within five points of the final playoff spot, while Carolina beat Washington in a shootout to climb within three points of the Sabres.
"It's definitely not the way we want to play," said Pominville, the right winger who reached the 20-goal mark for the fifth straight season. "We want to be disciplined, and it's tough to accept. We've taken a lot of pride in it lately, but I think discipline isn't only penalties, it's our system. We had a lot of breakdowns. I don't know how many two-on-ones we gave up. We gave up way too many two-on-ones, and those are Grade A scoring chances."
The Sabres lost in regulation for the first time in six outings (4-1-1). They seemed doomed from the start. They headed to the dressing room after one period in a 2-1 hole -- and they were extremely fortunate to do so.
Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf skated toward the Buffalo end and took an unobstructed slap shot as soon as he reached the blue line. Miller's glove grasped nothing but air. As the fans roared and prepared their chants of "Mill-er, Mill-er," the goalie looked at his glove and gave it a couple of unbelieving squeezes.
"I just didn't close off cross-body," Miller said. "It was rising up and I didn't have a step on it, so I just looked stupid."
The Leafs took a 2-0 lead with 1:14 to go in the first, capping a long rally when Nazem Kadri beat defenseman Shaone Morrisonn in the corner and set up Darryl Boyce in front. Everything was going the Leafs' way. Their fans, who normally make most of their noise when the scoreboard prompts them to do so, had started an impromptu "Go, Leafs, go" chant.
Then, just 11.6 seconds from the end of the period, the Sabres got their break. Jochen Hecht (who played just one period after reaggravating his upper-body injury) drew two defenders near him on a rush, then fed Thomas Vanek for an easy goal. It lifted the slumping Sabres off the bench and sent them to the dressing room with a bounce in their step.
The next time they went to the dressing room, they were still down by one.
Buffalo's penalty-kill unit, which entered the game on a 30-for-31 run, kept its stellar reputation intact by thwarting a five-on-three for 1:09. Just as they were exhaling, the Leafs struck.
Kadri skated around Tim Connolly at the blue line and fed Clarke MacArthur, whose shot beat Miller with 5:06 off the clock to put Toronto up, 3-1.
The towel-waving crowd of 19,483 quickly turned their handouts into hankies as the Sabres tied the game with two goals in just 30 seconds. Connolly's no-look pass from behind the net hit Pominville in front. Rob Niedermayer took advantage of a Toronto giveaway in front of its net to tie the game with 6:55 gone.
The period's scoring run wasn't done, however. A fine passing play allowed Mikhail Grabovski to put Toronto back in front with 6:25 left. MacArthur's long breakout pass hit Phil Kessel at the Buffalo blue line. He spotted a streaking Grabovski, and Miller could get only a piece of the shot.
"We came back and tied it up, then we gave up another rush and the puck ends up in the net," Vanek said. "This time of the year, any loss is a bad loss, but you just move on and try to win [tonight]."