TORONTO -- All Casey Mittelstadt and Marco Scandella could do was watch as Rasmus Ristolainen lost the puck behind the Buffalo Sabres' net, and no one alerted them that Nic Petan was skating alone toward Linus Ullmark.
Trevor Moore fired a quick pass to the slot, where Petan dropped to one knee and shot over Ullmark's glove to give the Toronto Maple Leafs a one-goal lead in the second period and provoke a roaring standing ovation in Scotiabank Arena.
The Sabres never recovered. Though Buffalo pelted 20 shots on goal in the third period, the Maple Leafs scored with the net empty to secure a 5-2 win Saturday night. The final 20 minutes were no consolation to coach Phil Housley or his players.
After all, the Sabres (30-27-8) are desperate for points -- they are nine back of the second wild-card playoff spot with 17 games remaining -- and have not won back-to-back games since Dec. 13.
"I’m not going to beat around the bush: it’s disappointing that we didn’t get the result," Housley lamented. "We didn’t meet our standard tonight. ... These guys have fought and battled together, and fought for each other in the third period. We get one goal it changes the complexion of the game, but the bottom line is we didn’t get the result at this time of the year."
Buffalo managed to complete a come-from-behind overtime victory over Pittsburgh Friday night, despite allowing 20 shots on goal in the first period and the Penguins having lost only two games when leading after two periods.
The Sabres were unable to get away with such poor defensive play against the Maple Leafs (40-21-4), who improved to 31-0 when leading after two periods despite having only 16 shots on goal over the final 40 minutes.
Following Petan's one-timer goal, Nikita Zaitsev pushed Toronto's lead to two when his shot from the blue line ricocheted off Brandon Montour's skate and past Ullmark with 55 seconds left in the second period.
"Tonight they were better than us," Jack Eichel said bluntly.
John Tavares poked a rebound over the goalline to open scoring 4:20 into the first period because Ullmark was unaware he did not have the puck covered following a spectacular save on Mitch Marner.
The Sabres silenced the crowd when Jason Pominville and Conor Sheary scored 94 seconds apart in the first period to take a 2-1 lead, and they had the opportunity to add an insurance goal when Marner was penalized for slashing with 14:08 remaining.
Buffalo failed to score on the power play and momentum quickly swung in Toronto's favor. Evan Rodrigues mistakenly pushed Patrick Marleau into Ullmark, preventing the Sabres goalie from attempting a glove save on Morgan Rielly's shot from the blue line and the puck ended up in the back of the net with only 20 seconds remaining in the first period to tie the score, 2-2.
"We did some good things," Pominville said. "We were able to get the lead, play with it for a little bit. But tough to give one up at the end of the period. ... I just feel like the breaks right now aren’t going our way. We have to find a way and dig a little deeper. Obviously it hasn’t been a fun stretch for anyone, but we have to look at the positives."
The Sabres didn't play poorly in the second period, either. Jeff Skinner nearly gave Buffalo the lead with a breakaway, only for his shot to be stopped by Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, who finished with 35 saves.
For the second time in one week, Housley noted that his players failed to communicate in the defensive zone, leading to Petan's go-ahead goal. Additionally, the Maple Leafs pushed the lead to two goals when Montour was unable to move Zach Hyman from in front of the net.
Shots on goal were 16-2 in favor of Buffalo during the first 14 minutes of the third period, and Rodrigues nearly cut the deficit to one when his wrist shot went through Andersen's leg pads.
"We’re not going to quit, Pominville continued. "We know that we have to get every point that we can. I thought we threw everything at them. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to put one in. Definitely had some looks. Again, not a lot of puck luck in the third. I don’t think it was for a lack of effort or execution."
Marner scored an empty-net goal with 1:57 remaining in regulation to secure the Leafs' first four-game winning streak over the Sabres since 1972. More important, the Sabres have lost nine of their last 13 games and have only 13 wins in 40 games since their winning streak ended.
The same problems that have followed the Sabres all season are preventing them from gaining any sort of traction, and they are in jeopardy of becoming only the second team in NHL history to miss the playoffs after a 10-game winning streak.
"It’s just simple stuff that kills us," said Eichel.