Behind the home bench at Air Canada Centre Wednesday night, interim coach Peter Horachek was worried much more about the present than the future. After Horachek did lots of yelling at the second intermission, the Leafs came back to beat the Sabres 4-3 in a shootout and earn two points and an emotional lift.
"Obviously it's nice, hard to come by right now," said centre Tyler Bozak, who scored the tying goal and the shootout winner. "It was nice to get the two points."
Next month when the regular season is over, ping-pong balls will be more valuable than points when the NHL draft lottery determines which team will get the chance to select McDavid first overall. Despite picking up a point, Buffalo (19-42-6) remains in the driver's seat for last place and a 20 per cent chance, three back of the Edmonton Oilers.
The injury and trade-ravaged Sabres didn't play like the worst team in the NHL for the first two periods as they took a lead 3-2 lead into the second intermission on goals by Johan Larsson, Tyler Ennis and Matt Moulson. The Sabres, who were limited to 10 shots in their Oct. 28 visit to Toronto, outshot the Leafs 21-17 through two periods.
"We're limited on what we can do out there and the guys who played hard, played hard and that's all we can ask for," Buffalo coach Ted Nolan said. "I'm proud of the way the group worked."
The Leafs, who earlier got goals from Brandon Kozun and Leo Komarov, turned up the pressure and the Sabres took three ill-advised penalties in the third period.
"Five penalties, it's tough to take against a team with offensive skill like that," Moulson said. "They're going to eventually capitalize."
With 3:25 left and Toronto on the power play, Bozak tipped Phil Kessel's shot past Anders Lindback for his 19th of the season. Bozak finished things off by scoring his third shootout goal of the season.
Toronto (27-35-6) passed the Carolina Hurricanes to move into 26th overall with 14 games remaining for the Leafs. That would give them an 8.5 per cent chance of landing McDavid, whose point streak ended Wednesday night at 27 games.
But for those involved in the game, winning meant more than a slightly higher chance of picking first. Just like the Sabres hope their performance is a building block, the Leafs will take some good feelings near the end of a tumultuous season.
"You want them to find ways to win games," Horachek said. "That's the positive you can take out of it."
One negative for the Leafs was the play of winger Joffrey Lupul, who was benched for a stretch of the third period after some turnovers and a missed assignment. Lupul played just 13:09.
"There was two, three, four things that I didn't think was up to his standards," Horachek said. "I didn't think that he was on top of his game."
Notes — Nazem Kadri was again a healthy scratch for the Leafs, who decided to extend the centre's punishment to three games for a pattern of off-ice problems. Kadri missed a team meeting Sunday, and president Brendan Shanahan said Wednesday morning that the 24-year-old "needs to start making better decisions." ... Jonathan Bernier made 30 saves for his 20th victory of the season. ... Leafs defenceman Stephane Robidas will have shoulder surgery Thursday. ...Defenceman Andrew MacWilliam recorded his first NHL point in his debut and was given the Leafs' player of the game hoodie.
Follow @SWhyno on Twitter