Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nik Antropov puts the puck between the legs of Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller to score the first goal of the game, Saturday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/J.P. Moczulski
TORONTO - What a difference a week makes. Last Saturday night the Toronto Maple Leafs staggered on a team bus in San Jose following a fifth consecutive defeat, looking every bit as beaten down as their record would suggest.
They were greeted back in Toronto with near panic by fans and media, who demanded changes at the top followed by a blow up of the team.
All those things may still happen, and GM John Ferguson's job is still very much on the line, but his players are not quitting on him.
Alex Steen and Nik Antropov each had a goal and an assist Saturday night as the Maple Leafs beat the Buffalo Sabres 4-2, making it three straight victories after coming home from that terrible California road trip.
"The confidence and the positive mood is starting to come back in this dressing room," said Steen, who has two goals in two games. "The last little while we've done an unbelievable job of sticking together.
"We have a lot of character guys in here."
Jason Blake and Alexei Ponikarovsky also scored for the Leafs (19-21-8), who turn around and play Sunday at 5 p.m. ET in New Jersey.
It's only the second time this season the Leafs have won three or more games in a row, following a four-game win streak Nov. 29-Dec. 6.
"We feel a little better about ourselves," said Leafs head coach Paul Maurice.
Daniel Paille and Jochen Hecht scored for the Sabres (20-20-6), who were down 3-0 before scoring twice to make it interesting. After ending a 10-game winless streak Friday night with a 10-1 rout of Atlanta, the Sabres had less jump on this night and fell to 1-6-5 in their last 12 games.
"Back-to-back games aren't easy, but the position that we're in, we need to win these back-to-backs," said Sabres defenceman Brian Campbell.
Toronto goalie Vesa Toskala stopped 26 shots for his third straight win, the Leafs picking up their play this past week just as most people had written them off.
"We did a good job of keeping all that negative stuff (speculation) out of our room," said Steen. "We just focus on what we can control. And that's how we play."
They played their best hockey of the game Saturday after Buffalo cut the lead to 3-2, finishing off a game as opposed to falling apart like they had so many times this season.
"That's really important," Maurice said of his team finishing off the game. "That confidence (in the third period) is layered - it's built over time. You have to keep doing it."
An early power play for the Leafs translated into the opening goal at 2:05 of the first period, Antropov finishing off a pretty passing play from captain Mats Sundin at the side of the net. Antropov's 18th of the season tied a career high.
And that was about it for the first period's entertainment value, both teams tentative in their approach, both sitting back waiting for the other to make a mistake. The shots were only 6-4 for Toronto after one period.
Things picked up in the second period, thanks in large part to an early push from Toronto. Steen, with his ninth of the season, made it 2-0 on a Leafs power play just 34 seconds into the middle period, Steen's centring attempt banking off Campbell. It was 3-0 at 2:37 when Ponikarovsky, with his 13th, beat Ryan Miller stick-side with a wrist shot from the left faceoff circle.
Buffalo finally solved Toskala at 13:16, Hecht collecting his 16th of the season when he snapped a wrist shot top corner and glove side from the faceoff dot. The Sabres came on strong late in the second period and ended up outshooting the Leafs 11-10 in the period.
The visitors continued that strong play in the third period and it paid dividends nine minutes in when Paille snapped his 10th goal of the season from the high slot, beating Toskala low on the glove side after a nice set-up by Paul Gaustad.
Now it was white-knuckle time for the 19,436 fans at Air Canada Centre.
But Blake, with his first goal in seven games, cemented the victory, flying down on a 2-on-1 break with Matt Stajan and rifling a wrist shot just inside the post - beating Miller glove side.
Toronto was 2-for-5 on the power play while Buffalo was 0-for-2.
Notes(at) Ian White had two assists ... Leafs defenceman Bryan McCabe skated for the first time Saturday morning since sustaining a broken hand Dec. 15 at Montreal. He remains about two to three weeks away from returning to the lineup ... For the Sabres it was the first of a seven-game road trip that also includes stops in Phoenix, Dallas, Tampa Bay, Florida, Atlanta and Boston. Their next home game goes Feb. 6 against New Jersey ... The Leafs took three out of four points in their two previous games at Buffalo earlier in this season.