This time, Buffalo Sabres fans could actually trust in a 3-0 lead. The Sabres gained an early edge on the Toronto Maple Leafs and held off their cross-border rival inside First Niagara Center to skate away with a 4-1 victory for the final meeting between the two young clubs this season.
Johan Larsson opened the scoring for Buffalo after just a little more than seven minutes had been played. He took a routine pass from linemate and Sabres captain Brian Gionta before skating to the brim of the circle and firing a shot that sailed past Toronto netminder Garret Sparks.
With the goal—and an empty-netter to seal the game at the tail end—Larsson continued a stretch of what might be his best NHL play to date; he’s earned six goals in the month of March and totaled eight points, altogether. He attributes much of his success to the synergy that he’s steadily building with linemates Gionta and Marcus Foligno.
“We’ve played together for a long time now; we try to take pride in our roles,” said Larsson following the game. “We try to be good defensively, be responsible, and we also want to play with the puck and try to keep it away from the other top lines. We want to play with it down low, and I think we’ve done that real well. We’re just going to keep building that.”
The Sabres struck again just as the opening period drew to a close. While on the power play, Buffalo sliced clear through the Toronto penalty kill, which concluded when Cal O’Reilly got the puck alone just a few feet from the Toronto crease and roofed it home for his second NHL goal this season. Cal’s younger brother, Ryan O’Reilly, assisted on the goal—the first time that the brothers have worked in tandem for an NHL goal.
“I think Ryan was happy to be on Cal’s first goal,” said Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma. “They always talk about their mom being the most happy and the most aware of those situations. It was mentioned during the game – ‘Mom’s going to be happy with that one.’”
The elder O’Reilly has only hit the NHL ice for 18 games this season, and after scoring his first with the Sabres on March 1st against the Edmonton Oilers, he went 12 games before finding the back of the net for the second time.
He didn’t need to wait quite as long for the third. It was early in the second period when a loose puck trickled into the Leafs zone, and Cal O’Reilly gave chase. He won the race for the puck and wasted no time in hurling a slapshot that raced straight past Sparks to give Buffalo a 3-0 lead.
Toronto finally appeared on the scoreboard at 13:32 of the second period. Some confusion erupted within the Sabres crease as goaltender Chad Johnson fought to keep the keep away, which Brooks Laich capitalized on to stab in his second tally this year.
But unlike two nights ago, when Buffalo completely collapsed against the Pittsburgh Penguins after securing a 3-0 lead, fans wearing blue and gold had no more reasons to distress. Buffalo and Johnson shut down the Leafs for the remainder of the contest, foiling a couple of Toronto power plays, including a late one where Toronto attacked with six players and their net empty.
Buffalo would find that empty net for one more goal with just three seconds left to play, as Larsson also nabbed his second goal of the game after capturing the puck near center ice and tossing it between the unguarded pipes.
Although the media swarmed Cal O’Reilly following the game, Johnson finished the night with his own stats that deserve boasting. After back-to-back losses in two nights against the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins, Johnson rebounded by withstanding almost everything the Leafs threw at him. He finished the night with 25 saves on 26 shots, earning him his 20th win this season. He’s the first Sabres goaltender to amass that number of wins inside the regular season since Ryan Miller collected 31 back in the 2011-2012 campaign.
“I know he got his career high a few ago, but to see him get twenty wins, it’s something I certainly would have taken at the beginning of the year—to see Chad Johnson get twenty for you,” said Bylsma. “I’m happy for him. It’s a significant marker for him in his career.”