Agony, ecstasy and the fine line in between

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

TORONTO – Just 13.1 seconds. Had they ticked down uneventfully, had the puck not bounced around and squeaked into the net, this story would have been totally different. The Buffalo Sabres still would have been written off for dead. The Toronto Maple Leafs would have been feeling good about themselves again.

But this is how thin the line can be in the NHL – not just between victory and defeat, but between desperation and relief, at least on one night in November. Jochen Hecht(notes) did put the puck past Jean-Sebastien Giguere’s(notes) left pad with 13.1 seconds left on Saturday night. The game did go to a scoreless overtime and a five-round shootout. Rookie Tyler Ennis(notes) did deke Giguere for the winner, giving the Sabres a 3-2 victory. The Sabres did rush onto the ice and mob each other in celebration.

“You would have thought we won the Stanley Cup,” said defenseman Tyler Myers(notes) in the Sabres’ dressing room, seconds after a teammate skipped off to the showers and said, “Boy, we needed that.”

Boy, did they.

“Obviously,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said, “we were overdue.”

The Sabres entered the game with only eight points in 14 games, the worst record in the league, a year after virtually the same lineup posted 100 points and won the Northeast Division.

Captain Craig Rivet(notes) had been a healthy scratch twice. Center Tim Connolly(notes) had been booed mercilessly at home. Myers, plus-13 as last season’s winner of the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie, was minus-12, worst in the league. Ruff, the longest-tenured coach in the league, had left many questioning whether his 13-season tenure should end.

“That’s half the problem with our society,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said after the morning skate, leaping to the defense of his colleague. “You’re married to your wife, and you have a rough … ‘Oh, that’s it. I’m getting a new wife.’ We see that every damn day in our society. We just get rid of things.

“The one thing you don’t generally do is get rid of your kids.”

Laughter.

“I don’t think.”

More laughter.

“Not many people say, ‘That’s it. I’m trading my kids for a new set of kids,’ right?”

Right. But general managers trade kids all the time, and Sabres GM Darcy Regier, who has a reputation for being slow in pulling the trigger, had left many questioning whether he needed to make a major move – or whether he should be fired along with Ruff.

Hecht, Ennis and goaltender Jhonas Enroth(notes) – who filled in for injured Leafs killer Ryan Miller(notes), earning his first NHL victory after allowing three goals on 12 shots and getting yanked Wednesday night against the Boston Bruins – didn’t solve all of that. They didn’t solve any of it. But it felt like it. And that’s a start.

“It’s a great relief here in the room that we finally win one again,” Hecht said. “We’ve got to hold on to this feeling. We’ve got to realize what it takes to win those games.”

So do the Leafs.

Last season’s 0-7-1 start was supposed to be so, well, last season. The Leafs started 4-0-0, and already some folks in Toronto started to think general manager Brian Burke and captain Dion Phaneuf(notes) didn’t sound so bold when they talked about making the playoffs.

But now look: The Leafs are 1-5-3 over their past nine games. They have 13 points, only three more than those woebegone Sabres (though they have two games in hand). Their captain, who had been struggling badly, is out for at least a month with a deep leg laceration. Their top line of Kris Versteeg(notes), Tyler Bozak(notes) and Phil Kessel(notes) can’t score, and the coach is questioning more than their production.

“We need more contributions from other people in a game like this, when we’ve got a team down on the mat and we didn’t finish them off like we should,” Wilson said. “They’re not producing any offense, and in fact, their effort’s a little off. They don’t get offense because they’re basically not working hard enough defensively.”

It’s a thin, thin line in the NHL. The Calgary Flames can’t score, explode for a bunch of goals, then descend back into dysfunction. The Ottawa Senators start slowly, general manager Bryan Murray makes noise about making trades, and then they get hot. The puck hits “three skates on the way to the net,” according to Wilson, and the Sabres get “a bit of a lucky goal from Hecht.” So much can change so quickly.

“I thought that late goal was something that sparked us more than anything,” Ruff said. “Well, there’s a few guys that want to enjoy it. Jochen wants to enjoy it. As a team, we need to enjoy it. …

“This is a lot about what the league is. You’re going to have to win some of the tight games. You’re going to have to carry that over.”