TORONTO — Sheldon Keefe watched his team emphatically erase a two-goal deficit on Saturday night's big stage.
The Maple Leafs head coach wasn't at all pleased with his team's follow-up performance 48 hours later.
Alex Tuch scored twice in his return from injury Monday as the Buffalo Sabres battled back from down 2-0 in the second period to defeat Toronto 4-3.
The Leafs are all but assured of finishing second in the Atlantic Division and are prepping for the playoffs, while the Sabres are desperately trying stay in the post-season race.
Toronto jumped ahead early in Monday's second period, but were then outscored 4-0 and outshot 23-7 over the next 27 minutes of action.
"There's enough to play for here, right?" Keefe said. "It's still tight enough (in the standings) that if you let your foot off the gas, not only are you now losing home ice, but you've got other teams (chasing)."
The showing was in a stark contrast to Saturday's 7-4 victory over Connor McDavid's Edmonton Oilers that saw Toronto respond after falling behind 3-1.
"Maybe it's not the same level of urgency," Keefe said. "Maybe you don't have your best, so you've got to play with intelligence.
"You've got to play very smart, manage the game."
Dylan Cozens, with a goal and an assist, and Jack Quinn also scored for Buffalo (33-28-5), which got 25 saves from Craig Anderson. Owen Power and JJ Peterka added two assists each.
"Stayed patient," said Tuch, who missed eight games with a lower-body injury, but has six goals and three assists in his last six appearances dating back to Feb. 15.
"We just stuck to it."
Auston Matthews, with a goal and two assists, William Nylander and Calle Jarnkrok replied for Toronto (41-17-8), while Mitch Marner added two assists. Matt Murray made 25 saves.
"Stopped working," Jarnkrok said. "It's tough to win if you're not working."
The Sabres entered 1-5-1 over their last seven games — a slump that likely means the franchise's NHL-record run of missing the playoffs will stretch to 12 consecutive seasons — but put in a solid performance to help keep their flickering hopes alive.
"We've made defending a greater focal point," Sabres head coach Don Granato said. "Our guys recognized tonight ways they could impact it more and more as the game went along."
The Leafs downed Buffalo by a combined 11-5 score in the teams' two previous meetings, including a 6-3 victory on Feb. 21.
This night followed a different script.
After battling back to tie the game early in the third on Tuch's 29th goal of the season, Cozens slotted home his 26th to give the visitors their first lead.
The Sabres then went to the power play, with Tuch adding his second of the evening for the big forward's first 30-goal campaign.
The Leafs finally woke up as the period wore on, but Anderson stopped Michael Bunting on a 2-on-0 with John Tavares, who also missed a wide-open net earlier in the third.
Nylander scored his 35th from a tight angle late in regulation, but Buffalo held on for a big two points.
"This group knows they can score," Granato said. "We're trying to sell that other side to them and believe in that confidence."
Matthews opened the scoring early in the second on a broken play for his 31st. Jarnkrok then doubled the advantage just over three minutes later when he fired five-hole for his 15th.
Buffalo, however, pushed back impressively with the 16 straight shots on target to close out the period, including Quinn batting home his 13th.
"I think 50/50 battles, just a little bit careless with the puck," Matthew said about where things turned for Toronto. "They tilted the ice their way and now we're just kind of chasing from that point."
Anderson made a breakaway stop on Nylander on Toronto's next shot early in the third — the Leafs went over 17 minutes without testing Buffalo's 41-year-old goaltender — before Tuch tied things moments later.
Murray denied Tage Thompson on a break to keep Toronto level, but Cozens made it 3-2 shortly thereafter for a lead the Sabres wouldn't surrender.
"We're up 2-0 with 10 minutes left in the second period — on home ice," Keefe said.
"Gotta win that game every time."
A sound issue at Scotiabank Arena meant there was no audio for the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" prior to puck drop, but fans stepped in a cappella-style and belted out the U.S. national anthem before the problem was fixed in time for "O Canada."
"That was great," said Matthews, who grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Just everybody coming together.
"Really cool gesture."
Leafs: Host Colorado on Wednesday.
Sabres: Visit Washington on Wednesday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2023.
Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press