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Sabres Central

Sabres and Leafs deck the halls with a tie
By Rick Anderson
December 22, 2001

Sabres goalie Mika Noronen bats the puck into the air and watches for any possible rebounds as Leafs wingers Alexander Mogilny and Gary Roberts get ready to pounce on the puck when it lands. Vaclav Varada stands by to help Noronen defend the goal.
[AP Photo/Don Heupel]

There is never a dull moment when the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs clash in Buffalo. Friday night the hockey fans of the two neighboring cities held a Christmas party at HSBC Arena and it was one of the most festive parties they celebrated in years. While the fans were mixing it up with good cheer in the stands, the Leafs and Sabres were putting on an exciting show on the ice as they skated off with a 3 all tie.

The Leafs, who have not won a regulation game in Buffalo since 1991, continued winless in Western New York as the Sabres came back from a 3-2 deficit when Slava Kozlov scored the tying goal with just 6:15 remaining. Kozlov also had two assists and skated off the ice as the No. 1 star of the game. Curtis Joseph, who had been kept out of the crease in Buffalo since getting blown out a couple years ago, played a stellar game in the nets making 25 saves, some of his best coming in the first four minutes of the game.

While the Sabres came out storming in the opening minutes, Eric Boulton picked up a roughing penalty at 6:21 and then Alexei Zhitnik was flagged for slashing at the 8:10 mark and suddenly the Leafs had a two-man advantage. With the Leafs swarming around Mika Noronen, Jyrki Lumme's shot deflected off Sabres defenseman Rhett Warrener and trickled through Noronen's legs and just over the goal line. The Sabres were lucky that the goal had been scored right when Boulton got out of the penalty box, otherwise the Leafs would have continued to have a one-man advantage.

Noronen calms goalies'turmoil

With the Sabres goaltending in shambles, Noronen was recalled after Wednesday night's debacle with Chicago to help get the netminding back to NHL level. Martin Biron and Bob Essensa shared the dubious honors of allowing 6 goals against the Black Hawks and Sabres coach Lindy Ruff brought Noronen back to Buffalo just before the midnight deadline when the NHL rosters were frozen for the holidays.

Noronen, after allowing a rather soft first goal of the night, settled down and played a solid game, turning aside 30 shots. He had to be especially sharp in the second and third periods as the Leafs blistered 22 shots at him. A couple times the Leafs broke down in alone on the 22-year old goalie and he came out to challenge the shooters, once going almost to the blue line to take away a loose puck.

"Noronen is very aggressive,"described Ruff. "He challenges the shooter and gets out of the crease. He made a couple of real good saves in the second period for us and I think we built off those saves."

With the two clubs playing the second half of the two-game mini series in Toronto Saturday night, Ruff is now faced with the dilemma of whether to come right back with Noronen or give Biron another chance. My bet is he goes with the hot goalie, Noronen.

Russian Power

This was Russian night in Buffalo. Maxim Afinogenov and Kozlov light the light for the Sabres while ex-Sabre Alexander Mogilny set up a Toronto goal. Maxim, who had been named to the Russian Olympic team earlier in the day, continued his torrid pace, scoring Buffalo's first goal in the second period. Afinogenov scored in his fourth straight game, netting his 13th of the season when another Russian, Kozlov, set him up with a great pass. Afinogenov, who got into the slot area, blasted one past Joseph and the Sabres suddenly found new life.

The Sabres went on a 4-on-3 powerplay at 11:48 of the second stanza and they made the most of it when Tim Connolly notched his 6th of the season. Jason Woolley saw Connolly moving into the slot and slid him the puck. Connolly didn't hesitate as he roofed one over Joseph and the Sabres had their only lead of the game.

Wild Third

The third period was a classic in Sabres-Leafs lore. There was plenty of hitting, scoring chances and action as the team roared back and forth up the ice like two NBA teams going at it. Noronen was called upon to make several spectacular saves as was CuJo.

Aki Berg Sabres decks winger Vaclav Varada out for the holidays with a ferocious check that sends Varada sailing through the air.
[AP Photo/Don Heupel]

With the Sabres applying pressure on Joseph, the Leafs managed to steal the puck and break in on Noronen 2-on1. Mogilny, came in down the left boards with Darcy Tucker to his right. Mogilny thought about shooting on the Sabres young goalie, but Tucker was hitting his stick on the ice to signal to the Russian that he had the best chance to score, which he did when the took Mogilny's pass and slammed it past Noronen at the 2:29 mark of the final stanza. The goal was a result of the Sabres pinching in to force the play and they got caught with their shorts down.

There was yet another defensive lapse when Zhitnik sent a terrible pass around the boards and it was promptly picked up by Gary Roberts. He feathered a clean pass to Robert Reichal, who one-timed his shot five hole through Noronen's pads. The Leafs fans partied like it was 1999 and thoughts of finally beating the Sabres in Buffalo danced through their heads like sugar plums.

Roberts turned from hero to goat when he took a roughing penalty five minutes later and it prevented the Leafs from breaking the winless slump in Buffalo that is now ten years old. Woolley, who didn't have a good game defensively, still showed his offensive skills in this one to compensate for several crucial errors on the D side. Zhitnik kept the puck in the Leafs zone during the powerplay by getting it back to Woolley, who clanked it off the left post. It came right out to Kozlov who made no mistake in pounding the rebound past Joseph to tie the game.

The Sabres got yet another huge opportunity when they played 4-on-3 late in the game, but Joseph came up with some great saves to force the game into overtime. The Sabres managed 3 shots to none for the Leafs in the sudden death, but the team failed to connect and both teams gained a point from the wild and Woolley contest.

While the Sabres did make a couple mistakes defensively, they still played a much better game than they did Wednesday against the Black Hawks. Even so, the Sabres cannot take the tie as a huge accomplishment as they are desperately in need of wins at this point of the season. They are still 4 games under .500 and dead last in the Northeast Division. A long winning streak is the only cure to the affliction that ails this club.

Sabres Talk

Joseph, who along with the sellout crowd of 18,650, heard the ringing of the goal post on Woolley's shot in the third period. Kozlov was Johnny-on-the-spot and quickly banged it in before Joseph had time to react.

"I knew it hit the post," Joseph said. "I quickly looked back, just in time to almost get it."

Tucker, who was the Leafs top player, both offensively and defensively, knew the Leafs had a point in the bag when Roberts took a needless penalty late in the third period.

"We did some good things," Tucker said. "But when you have a 3-2 lead with 10 minutes left in the game, you should be able to pull it out."

Noronen isn't sure if he is going to start the second half of the home-and-home, but is ready to do anything that Ruff wants him to do.

"I know that Marty will get better and he's a great goalie,"said Noronen. "I'll just do my best and we'll see what they decide. If there's two good goalies, I think that's a good thing."

Ruff sees in Noronen seems to agree with him.

"There's a lot to like about the performance Mika put in," mentioned Ruff. "He battled. I thought everybody battled. We made some mistakes and bad decisions, but you can't take away how hard we battled. Part of it was he battled, too. He fought to see pucks, fought on all the rebounds. That spurred us on at times.

"He made a couple real good saves in the second period for us. I think we built off those saves. The game could have gone the other way, but he covered up a couple of our mistakes."

Kozlov has been hot ever since Ruff benched him a couple weeks ago. In ten games since, Kozlov has netted 4 tallies to ago along with 11 assists.

"He might have been our best player," said Ruff. "Through his puck-possession game and some of the moves he's made down low to create the goals he's really elevated his play."

"Obviously, there's different emotion when Toronto's here,''Ruff said about the festive climate at the Arena. "There were a lot of Canadians at the game, the edge was up and I think you saw that with the referees. To give Warrener four minutes was (questionable), but then they gave Domi a penalty right after we scored in the second period. It was even for both teams."

Roberts, who took the roughing penalty that helped the Sabres tie up the game, was upset with the late call.

"No one is going to try to put their team down short-handed," said Roberts. "It looks like you've got a couple of veteran referees out there (Kevin Pollock along with Dan Marouelli). There were some questionable calls both ways and then it seemed like it was makeup calls the rest of the night."

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