Lethargic Maple Leafs miss chance to gain ground in playoff race

The Toronto Maple Leafs allow three goals in under two minutes in the third period and the Buffalo Sabres win it 5-2.

BUFFALO — Jason Spezza used the same word multiple times when talking about points the Toronto Maple Leafs left on the table.

Spezza didn’t talk about “grabbing” or “pocketing” points because that’s rarely how they come to you at this time of year, when you’re playing your 60th contest of the season and second in as many nights. So when the Leafs, despite being outplayed by the Buffalo Sabres, still found themselves in a tie hockey game early in the third period, Spezza sensed an opportunity.

“These are games you’d like to see us drag points out of,” he said.

What a perfect way to describe how the Leafs could have salvaged a Sunday night at KeyBank Center in Buffalo that briefly offered some promise before a 91-second explosion by the Sabres delivered a 5-2 winning result the home team richly deserved based on overall quality of play.

Still, those precious points — two would have put Toronto six up on the Florida Panthers in the race for third place in the Atlantic Division — were up for grabs because Frederik Andersen was good enough to compensate for a bunch of teammates who appeared to be running on empty from the get-go.

“To me, it was pretty apparent from about the 10-minute mark of the first period on that we didn’t have it,” said Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe, noting he was impressed his squad found a way to climb out of the 2-0 hole it had dug by the midway point of the game. “Frankly I was a little stunned we had the surge we did to start the third.”

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When Zach Hyman scored his 18th of the year to make it 2-2 early in the third, you thought the template of Andersen brick-walling and the team getting timely scoring might carry them to a second win in as many nights, following the victory they posted over the Ottawa Senators in the nation’s capital on Saturday.

Maybe, to play on Spezza’s parlance, they could wrestle or wrangle a point or two on an occasion when they were by far the second-best batch of skaters in the building. Instead, it all came apart in the blink of an eye. With Jake Muzzin serving a tripping penalty, Jack Eichel ripped a power-play goal by Andersen to give Buffalo a 3-2 advantage 6:06 into the third. Just 1:31 later, the lead had grown to three goals thanks to tallies by Kyle Okposo and Jimmy Vesey.

“That’s it, that’s the game,” said Hyman. “5-2 and it’s hard to come back from that.”

When the QEW collision was complete, Buffalo had directed 36 shots at Andersen, who was making his second start since returning from a neck injury. That Toronto couldn’t take advantage of the goalie’s performance is something every Leaf can lament as they prepare to play their next two games against Sidney Crosby and the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins.

“We didn’t execute,” said captain John Tavares. “They came hard and played hard and we didn’t match it. Our goaltender just played phenomenal and gave us a great chance. Considering the sense of urgency we need to have and the points, how crucial they are, it’s disappointing, especially once we got ourselves an opportunity in the third to win it.

“We just haven’t been able to put a full 60 together.”

The lethargic Leafs were fortunate to make it past the first 20 minutes without falling behind, relying on Andersen to make several high-calibre saves in an opening period that saw Buffalo hold a 16-5 shot advantage.

Toronto’s luck changed early in the second, though, as Johan Larsson opened the scoring just 1:32 into the frame when he collected a carom off the backboards and slid it past a helpless Andersen. In fairness to the Leafs, the club was briefly shorthanded on the back end as rookie Rasmus Sandin missed a few shifts before the end of the first and a handful more to start the second after blocking a shot, leaving his club with just five blue-liners for a spell.

Buffalo took a 2-0 lead just before the midway point of the game when Conor Sheary tipped home a Colin Miller point shot.

However, just 1:47 after Sheary’s strike, Egor Korshkov — making his big-league debut — scored his first NHL goal on his first shot, finishing a nice feed from Spezza with a crisp one-timer past Carter Hutton.

“He’s got a goal-scorer’s touch,” said Spezza, who spent some time beside the big Russian in training camp.

Having just been called up from the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies, Korshkov was playing his third hockey game in as many days. He also just happened to bag a goal in his previous three AHL outings, meaning he’s on a four-game goal-scoring streak across two leagues. Kyle Clifford, suiting up for his sixth game in a Leafs uniform since being acquired from the Los Angeles Kings, picked up his first point with his new team by drawing an assist on the tally.

About the only skater in Blue and White hustling the entire night in Buffalo was Mitch Marner, who looked dangerous every time he touched the puck. Marner teed up Auston Matthews for a golden one-timer chance in the second stanza, but Hutton denied Matthews’ attempt to take the NHL goal-scoring lead.

When Hyman evened the score early in the third, it was the end of a play Marner started by controlling the puck on the half-wall and feeding it to Muzzin for the shot Hyman tipped home.

At that point, some other players decided to join the fight as the trio of Tavares between William Nylander and Alexander Kerfoot created a couple great chances directly following the goal. Nobody expects wall-to-wall brilliance this time of year, and it seemed for a moment that Toronto might turn in two periods of tepid hockey and live to tell about it. Instead, it went sideways in a flash.

Here comes Spezza’s word again.

“I don’t think you’re going to get 60 minutes of dominance many nights, but you’re going to have to understand that you’re going to have to control things a little better than we did,” he said. “You can’t give up three [in 1:31]. It’s a tough time of year, you’ve got to drag points out of games.”

They couldn’t manage it this time and, as Hyman noted, the opportunities to make good suddenly don’t seem so endless.

“[There are] 22 games left, we gotta get going.”

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