TORONTO (AP) — Unlike last year, the Toronto Maple Leafs are proving to be pretty good at the shootout.
The Leafs made it through three periods and overtime for the 13th time this season on Wednesday night 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.
"I think if our team had a choice, we'd try to end the game a bit earlier," said defenseman 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, who 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."
Toronto went 0 for 5 in shootouts during last year's lockout-shortened 48-game 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.
Those shooters have experienced a lot of shootout success, so assistant coach Greg Cronin — who fills out the lineup — keeps going back to them. Lupul is six for seven, van Riemsdyk is six for nine and Bozak is three for five in shootout attempts.
"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 dropped to 6-3 in shootouts, but were thankful to get there thanks to Cody Hodgson's power-play goal early in the third period and a strong penalty kill in overtime that included a good scoring chance for defenseman 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 pizazz. 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.
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 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 practice 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."
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.