BUFFALO, N.Y. - Just when it seemed fashionable to count out the Buffalo Sabres, the defending Presidents' Trophy winners have suddenly climbed firmly back into playoff contention.
Ryan Miller stopped 35 shots and Paul Gaustad scored the lone goal with 11 minutes left in regulation in a 1-0 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night. The Sabres improved to 8-0-2 in their past 10 games and moved into seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings, a point ahead of the idle New York Rangers.
It was only three weeks ago when the Sabres sat 14th in the East while in the midst of a 1-7-5 slump.
"It feels good, but the job's not done," said Miller, who registered his third shutout of the season and seventh of his career. "We're excited for the possibility to keep climbing. Our goal isn't eighth or seventh, sixth is the next spot."
The way Miller's playing, anything seems possible.
He's 8-0-1 in his past nine starts, a stretch in which he's allowed 15 goals.
The Sabres are showing resilience, too, pulling out a tightly played contest while playing their sixth game in nine nights, including a 5-1 win at Ottawa on Tuesday.
"We were being counted out by outsiders, not by people in this locker room," Gaustad said. "We have confidence in this team. We went through a tough stretch and I think that builds character."
Daniel Paille set up the decisive goal, helping Gaustad end a nine-game point drought. Working the puck back and forth behind the Leafs' net, Paille finally broke free of defender Nikolai Antropov, and fed Gaustad, who was parked at the right post.
Gaustad then banked a shot in off the side of Vesa Toskala's head, catching the goalie leaning the wrong way.
Toronto, stuck in 14th place, had a two-game win streak snapped, and lost despite being off since a 3-2 overtime win over Detroit on Saturday.
"We've had one bad game in 14," Maple Leafs coach Paul Maurice said, referring to an 8-0 loss to Florida last week. "We fought hard, and we played hard and competed, it was just a difficult way to end it. The fight was there."
Toronto squandered a chance to win three straight for only the third time this season.
"We played a really good game. We were the better team for most of the game," Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin said. "Miller was the difference."
He sure was.
Miller stopped 12 shots in the second period, including seven during a 2 1/2-minute stretch, part of which came during a Maple Leafs' power play. His best series of stops came when he foiled Pavel Kubina's blast from inside the blue line, and then recovered in time to foil Matt Stajan's chance from the slot.
Miller also got a big assist from defenceman Henrik Tallinder with 1:47 left in the third. That's when Darcy Tucker's shot from the right circle got behind Miller, but Tallinder swept it from danger.
"You've got to love Hank," Miller said, referring to Tallinder. "I got lucky."
Coach Lindy Ruff credited Miller, who has begun filling a leadership role on a team that lost co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to free agency last summer.
"There's been a feeling of confidence and it starts with Ryan and feeds through the team," Ruff said. "You need your goaltender on most nights to be your best player. Ryan has been very good for us."
Notes: Leafs LW Alexei Ponikarovsky returned after missing seven games with a dislocated shoulder. ... The Sabres, off until playing the Rangers on Saturday, are in the midst of playing 14 games during a 25-day stretch that ends against Montreal on Feb. 29. ... The Leafs returned home to Toronto to face the New York Islanders on Thursday, kicking off a five-game homestand, their longest of the season.