Maple Leafs Beat Sabres, 6-3, to Tie Series
By Rachel Alexander
TORONTO, May 25It wasn't until Garry Valk's empty-net goal with 30 seconds remaining that the fans at Air Canada Centre were absolutely certain. The Toronto Maple Leafs had been dancing near the flame so often throughout Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals that even a late two-goal lead seemed precarious.
But when Valk slid the puck smoothly into the net, the tension was released.
All 18,800 bodies in the building rose as one, a wave of fists and towels and flags flying into the air as the 6-3 score flashed above them, signifying a 1-1 tie in this best-of-seven series. The noise came about a half-second later, a blaring balloon of sound that took a quick boomerang around an entire country before heading south on Queen Elizabeth Way, the 100-mile highway that leads to Buffalo.
Game 3 is there Thursday, and with Buffalo star goaltender Dominik Hasek still day-to-day with a strained groin muscle, all of Canada spent the evening celebrating the momentum Toronto grabbed tonight.
"It was a huge win -- we definitely had to bounce back from [losing Game 1] and at least win one in our own building," left wing Steve Thomas said. "In the third period, we just played terrible. I don't think we played our game for more than five minutes. So it was gratifying to finally have those last goals and have the win."
The Maple Leafs had piled up a 4-1 lead by the first two minutes of the third period, only to allow the Sabres to squeeze the score to 4-3 on Stu Barnes's two power-play goals in three minutes. Thomas gave Toronto a little breathing room with a withering goal midway through the third period, but Buffalo kept pressing until Valk finally ended the suspense with his empty-netter.
It was the second time Barnes had come close to single-handedly changing the course of the game: Around the 10-minute mark of the first period, he sneaked into the Toronto zone on a breakaway and took sharp aim at goaltender Curtis Joseph. But Joseph, who had a ragged performance in Game 1 on Sunday, looked much more composed tonight, stopping Barnes and immediately clearing the rebound.
The move not only prevented a goal but also proved to be a major adrenaline boost for the Maple Leafs, who took the puck into the Buffalo zone immediately after that save and kept it there, attacking the net despite three clearing attempts by the Sabres.
After four different shots at goaltender Dwayne Roloson, Steve Sullivan finally broke through for a goal and a lead Toronto bobbled but never surrendered.
"I think because we lost the other night, there was some questions whether or not Cujo had an off-night," Toronto Coach Pat Quinn said. "I think making that save was important to him, after being questioned, and certainly for us, clearly if it's not made, it really plays into the defensive team's hands."
Former Washington Capitals defenseman Sylvain Cote extended the Maple Leafs' lead to 2-0 just 18 seconds later on a breakaway, stickhandling his way through the Buffalo zone before chipping the puck past Roloson.
It was the first of three questionable goals allowed by the Sabres' usual backup. With Hasek still too sore to play, Roloson was making only his second career playoff start and looked lost at times. It didn't help that the Sabres were playing the up-and-down game more suited to the Maple Leafs' go-go offensive system, although Buffalo looked a little sharper throughout the second period.
Jason Woolley cut the score to 2-1 on a power play goal at 10 minutes 3 seconds, and the Sabres appeared ready to tie the score after the Maple Leafs blundered through a power play. But Toronto was able to push away with an even-strength goal from Sergei Berezin. Yanic Perreault's goal extended the score to 4-1 and gave the Maple Leafs enough of a cushion to withstand the Sabres' third-period onslaught.
"We continued to battle and even had a couple chances after Thomas scored, so if we had gotten a few bounces we could have gotten back in there," Barnes said. "But it didn't happen, and then they scored the empty net. We're just going to have to go back home and try it again."
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