TORONTO – Now that is how a player takes advantage of an opportunity.
Johan Larsson, elevated to the Sabres’ top line Wednesday, responded with a goal, two assists and a plus-3 rating during Buffalo’s 4-3 shootout loss to Toronto. The center calmly cashed in a scoring chance, skated with intent and passed with purpose. He played so well that even Matt Moulson scored.
Larsson had practically begged for a chance as the No. 1 center earlier in the year. Now he’s in position to remain in the middle of Tyler Ennis and Moulson for Buffalo’s last 15 games. The line combined for nine points against the Maple Leafs.
“He was the best player on the ice,” Ennis said of Larsson. “He worked super hard. The difference was his defensive play. It turned pucks over, and we were able to generate chances because of his work.”
The buzzword in the Sabres’ dressing room is “opportunity.” Nine of the 21 players who showed up to Air Canada Centre weren’t with Buffalo when the season started. Larsson was among them. The forward didn’t show well during his first two callups this season, but he’s making the most of his third.
“I felt I’ve got to take care of the defensive zone and go from there,” the 22-year-old said. “I just tried to play my game. They’re really good players, and we kind of read each other pretty good out there.”
Larsson opened the scoring during a 2-2 first period that featured offensive players being a step ahead of defenders. After Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf coughed up the puck, Larsson set up Ennis during the ensuing rush. The center cleaned up the opportunity after Ennis lost control.
The Leafs answered with two goals in 21 seconds to get a rise out of the crowd, announced at an inflated 18,844. Showing they are just as unaccustomed to handling prosperity as the Sabres, the Leafs allowed Buffalo to tie it 1:32 later. The Sabres took advantage of another Toronto turnover, with Moulson setting up Ennis for an open net with 3:58 to go.
“We got off to a really good start,” Larsson said. “That helps get the good feeling. We just kept going from there.”
The Sabres scored the only goal of the second, with Larsson doing most of the work. The center moved with speed through the neutral zone before giving the puck to Ennis. Larsson took a return pass and quickly fed Moulson, who scored from the doorstep for only his third goal in 33 games.
Buffalo was 4:28 from a regulation victory when Mike Weber was penalized for delay of game. The defenseman went to the penalty box in a furious mood. He was no better coming out after Tyler Bozak’s tip found the net with 3:25 to play.
Bozak scored the winner in the shootout to stretch Buffalo’s winless streak to five games (0-4-1).
Ted Nolan has said everybody watches what goes on in Toronto. The Sabres’ coach knows everybody talks, too. One of the conversations Wednesday was about his future.
Before the game, someone asked Nolan if he thinks he’ll be behind the Sabres’ bench next season. Nolan learned long ago that off-ice matters are far from his control, so he took a short-term approach rather than look ahead.
“I’m expecting to be here tonight,” the coach said. “That’s it. I only look one day. You never know. The bus goes off the road, who knows?
“You can’t predict the future. You can’t worry about yesterday. The only thing you have is today. That’s always been my philosophy in life.”
Like most folks in Sabreland, this season has been rough for Nolan. The coach entered with off-the-charts optimism, but a 19-42-6 record, an overmatched roster and philosophical differences over personnel have taken a toll.
He may not know where he’ll be next season, but he knows he does a better job behind the bench now than he did in 1997. That’s when he won the Jack Adams Award with the Sabres as the NHL’s Coach of the Year.
“I think I am” a better coach now, Nolan said. “I think we all change. I have a little bit more understanding of how the game is played outside the game, No. 1. Being aware of traits of different players of different parts of the world and understanding of those traits, having the experience of going to Latvia really solidified that with me, particularly coming from a small First Nations community.
“You just learn to adapt and adjust and learn to adapt to your surroundings.”