BUFFALO, N.Y. – The beer cans started flying out of the First Niagara Center stands moments after Christian Ehrhoff’s shot went through James Reimer’s legs – presumably the work of Toronto Maple Leafs fans that would rather show their frustration than finish the last drink.
It may give the thousands who ventured up the QEW some comfort to know that the players in blue and white were even more frustrated than they were.
There was no positive spin to be put on a 3-2 overtime loss against the NHL’s worst team. Even the loser point they earned against Buffalo brought little comfort on Friday night. It was the second game in a row where Toronto blew a lead and it dropped the team’s record to 4-5-3 in what has been a rather forgettable November.
Perhaps more than anything, the effort underscored the need for the players to bear down and grind their way out of a tough stretch. The game featured some good moments – just like in Pittsburgh two nights earlier – but it wasn’t even close to a 60-minute performance and some familiar problems kept it from being a victory.
The most notable of those was undisciplined penalties. Paul Ranger was serving a holding infraction when Matt Moulson tied the score 1-1 in the second period and he had only just been let out of the penalty box seconds before Ehrhoff’s overtime winner. On the Moulson goal, the Sabres were enjoying even more of an advantage because Leafs centre Jerred Smithson broke his stick – a repeat of what happened to Tyler Bozak against the Penguins on Wednesday night.
"What do you do?" Toronto coach Randy Carlyle said rhetorically. "Those are the things that are happening to you right now and we just have to put our nose to the grindstone and grind it out and find ways."
The mounting losses seem to have shaken the team’s confidence – although that’s probably something that can be cured with a big victory or two. They will certainly have plenty of chances with a game against Montreal on Saturday and an extremely tough December schedule that includes games against seven of the top nine teams in the NHL standings: Chicago, San Jose, St. Louis, Boston, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Phoenix.
How they come through that stretch could go a long way to determining if there will be a second straight trip to the playoffs this spring. Despite the recent slide, Toronto currently holds down one of the Eastern Conference’s wild card spots.
"We’ve just got to stick with it and try to find the positives," said Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk. "It’s a long year and you don’t want to get too negative. You can never be too high or too low.
"We’re in a decent position right now still and we still have a lot of games left."
There was plenty of frustration on the Toronto bench when van Riemsdyk was knocked down on a partial breakaway in the final minute of the game and a penalty wasn’t called. Even though Sabres backchecker Matt D’Agostini appeared to sweep the puck away just before tripping the Toronto player, the visitors felt it should have evened things up.
"Unless we’re playing football, I don’t know (why that wasn’t called)," said van Riemsdyk. "Definitely frustrating. Again, we have to be better but some of those things can change the game."
Added Carlyle: "The breaks aren’t going our way and that’s when you’ve got to find ways to create more."
That will be the biggest challenge when they arrive for what should be an emotional atmosphere at the Bell Centre on Saturday night. Toronto’s fifth game in eight days comes with the team nursing plenty of bumps and bruises – most notably to defenceman Cody Franson and top-line winger Phil Kessel.
Franson was seen limping to the team bus on Friday night while Kessel missed the start of the third period and is believed to be experiencing some discomfort with his right wrist. Even though he scored another goal and generated a game-high seven shots, he appeared to be laboring on a couple shifts.
Kessel declined to speak with reporters after the game. Like many of his teammates, he was in a foul mood after failing to secure another point that was there for the taking.
That it happened against a Buffalo team currently on pace to be the worst of the NHL’s Salary Cap Era made it all the more frustrating. The Sabres are now 2-5-0 under interim coach Ted Nolan and both victories have come against the Leafs in this building.
As you might expect, there were plenty of smiles in the home dressing room after just the sixth victory in 27 games during this miserable season.
"Look what happened after the game was over," said Sabres forward Drew Stafford. "After a home win you get beer cans thrown at you. We’ll take it. Everyone’s happy in here. We’ve got to remember how this feels."
The same can be said for the Leafs.