TORONTO - Like it or not, the Toronto Maple Leafs are well-versed in the shootout.
And unlike last season, that's actually a good thing for them. On Wednesday night at Air Canada Centre the Leafs made it through three periods and overtime yet again and managed to beat the Buffalo Sabres 4-3 for their league-leading ninth shootout victory of the year.
It was the Toronto's third straight win, and three of their past four overall have come via the shootout. Some how, some way, they keep getting there and have it to thank for a playoff position 49 games in.
"I think if our team had a choice, we'd try to end the game a bit earlier," said defenceman Morgan Rielly, who scored his first home goal this season. "But I think that's just an aspect of hockey nowadays. It just turns out that we're pretty good at them."
Only the Washington Capitals have gone to the shootout more times than the Leafs (24-20-5), who have showed a penchant for at least forcing overtime. They have just three regulation victories in their past 28 games, yet are right in the thick of the Eastern Conference race.
"Obviously we're fortunate this year that our record in the shootout is a real, strong positive for our hockey club," coach Randy Carlyle said. "There's been a lot of extra points gained by it. If we can continue to find a way to get points, that's what our job is."
Whereas the Leafs went 0 for 5 and rued shootouts during last year's lockout-shortened 48-game season, they keep getting the job done this season. Against the Sabres on Wednesday night, James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak all scored and goaltender James Reimer stopped one of two attempts.
Whether it's Reimer or Jonathan Bernier, those shooters have experienced a lot of shootout success, so it has made sense for assistant coach Greg Cronin - who fills out the lineup - to keep going back to them. Lupul is six for seven, van Riemsdyk is six for nine and Bozak is three for five.
"Think we're confident in the guys that we can send out there to score goals and confident in our goalie," van Riemsdyk said. "We seem to have guys that are confident going in with their moves and the goaltenders are confident in the net. It makes it a good matchup in the shootout."
The Sabres (13-27-6) dropped to 6-3 in shootouts this season but were thankful to get there thanks to Cody Hodgson's early-third-period, power-play goal and a strong penalty kill in overtime that included a good scoring chance for defenceman Tyler Myers.
"That was huge," Buffalo coach Ted Nolan said of the penalty kill. "I thought Tyler Myers, his first game back was probably one of his best games all season long. He played with a little pizzazz. He played with some energy, and he was very aggressive."
Goaltender Ryan Miller, who could again be the U.S. starter at the Sochi Olympics after leading the Americans to silver in Vancouver, was strong before the shootout in making 36 saves in regulation and overtime. He gave up goals to Olympic teammate Phil Kessel, Nikolai Kulemin and Rielly.
Kessel's was a pure goal-scorer's goal, a perfect shot that went five-hole on Miller.
"He made a nice shot," Miller said. "I didn't see. Good for Phil. Get him going for the Olympics, I guess."
In addition to Hodgson, Matt Ellis and Matt Moulson also scored for the Sabres. Moulson's goal at 6:34 of the second wasn't reviewed, though it took several replay angles to show it clearly went in the net.
"It went in," Carlyle said. "It hit the webbing on the top. When it hit the bar, it went up and it went into the webbing and then came back down. The angle that the camera had made it difficult to determine if it actually crossed the line because the camera angle was at a bad angle to (see) it. But when you looked at it from where he was shooting it, from behind him, you can see the top of the webbing of the net went up, so that usually indicates it's got to be in then net."
Just before that, Buffalo's Zemgus Girgensons had a quality chance on a second-period penalty shot, which Reimer stopped in what turned out to be more practice for the shootout.
Not that Reimer needed it, as he improved to 4-0 in the shootout this season.
"Personally I'm not a huge fan of shootouts," Reimer said. "It's something I try to practise most days as much as I can. Shootouts are important points, and they're huge come the end of the year. Obviously regulation wins are most important, but those points are priceless."
They're especially valuable considering the thin line between the Leafs being in a good position nearing the Olympic break and having to play catch-up in late February, March and April.
This was the 16th time Toronto got to at least overtime, which is a boat load of points earned before the game is even over. The Leafs have played 72 minutes and five seconds of overtime, more than an entire extra game.
Toronto's knack for surviving past the 60-minute mark is hard to explain.
"That's a good question," van Riemsdyk said. "There's some games where we seem to get a lead and end up losing that lead or games where you battle back and go to the shootout. It's part of the game, and you just come with what's given."
So while the Leafs have taken what they've earned in shootouts, Miller and the Sabres were left to wonder about a point lost.
"Unfortunately, I wasn't very good in the shootout," Miller said. "That's the difference."
Being so good in the shootout has made a major difference in the Leafs' fortunes this season.
"When you win them it's a positive, when you lose them it's a negative," Carlyle said. "That's the bottom line. That's what you play the game to gain points and to win, and a shootout gives you a win."
NOTES - Enforcer Colton Orr returned to Toronto's lineup after missing Tuesday's game in Boston with the flu, which has affected several players. Frazer McLaren was scratched to make room for Orr. ... Sabres forward Matt D'Agostini left the game early in the first period with an upper-body injury and did not return. D'Agostini skated just three shifts for 2:19, and Nolan said he expects him to be out for "a little while." ... This was the fifth and final meeting between the Leafs and Sabres this season.
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