Steve Ott wasn’t Sabres coach Ron Rolston’s first choice for the shootout Thursday.
He wasn’t No. 2 or 3, either.
In fact, Rolston had to get all the way down to the sixth shooter before giving Ott a tap on the shoulder, but the coach was rewarded for his decision when Ott scored what proved to be the winning goal for Buffalo in a 5-4 shootout victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs in front of a delirious sold-out crowd in First Niagara Center.
It’s the second straight game Ott has scored the deciding goal for Buffalo, following his overtime winner in Montreal on Tuesday.
“Every guy in here has moves that they’ve done since they were a junior,” said Ott, who came in full speed on Toronto goalie James Reimer and beat him with a backhand to the right post. “Tonight, I was lucky to beat him.”
“I think his skill is underrated,” said captain Jason Pominville, who skated on the top line with Ott and center Cody Hodgson. “He can make plays and finish, so it’s fun being out there with him.”
This was Ott showing his entire repertoire Thursday — good and bad. He laid out Leafs center Mikhail Grabovski with a Carubba Collision-worthy hit in the first period, but then at the end of the shift took an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty — for blowing a kiss at Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf.
“I guess you’re not allowed to blow guys kisses on the ice,” Ott said. “I’ll stick those kisses back and keep them in my mouth.”
Toronto scored 15 seconds into that man advantage, putting the Sabres in an early hole that got bigger just over a minute later when Nazem Kadri tipped in a shot to make it 2-0.
That had the “Go, Leafs, Go” chants echoing throughout FNC, but Ott helped cut into the deficit when he assisted on Tyler Ennis’ goal later in the first period that made it 2-1 and set up one of the most exciting games of the season.
“Honestly, that’s easy energy you can take from the crowd,” Ott said. “At times, obviously, I was a little too emotional and cost my team a little bit there, but lucky enough, we continued to push back and throughout the game I thought we were pretty solid.”
Ott’s shootout attempt was just the fifth of his career, and second successful one. He now has 17 points in 31 games, and leads the team by a wide margin with 130 hits.
“Just the grit he plays with on a consistent basis for us provides a lot of energy for our players and the bench,” Rolston said.
Ott played on the top line because leading scorer Thomas Vanek missed his fourth game of the season. Vanek was hit by a Christian Ehrhoff shot Tuesday night in Montreal and suffered a lower-body injury.
“He’s better today,” Rolston said before Thursday’s game. “He feels, actually, good. We’re starting the process, so we’re hoping to get him on the ice tomorrow.”
Vanek was joined in the press box by forward Nathan Gerbe, who was a healthy scratch for the second straight game.
“I think he’s working hard, but we have to make some tough decisions right now in our lineup,” Rolston said of Gerbe. “I can only have 12 forwards in there and [he] was a player that I think didn’t give us a reason to keep him in right now. And that’s what he has to work for.”
Burly forward John Scott was back in the lineup after being a healthy scratch for the past three games.
The Maple Leafs were without forward Joffrey Lupul, who was hit with a two-game suspension Thursday afternoon for a hit to the head of Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman on Wednesday night.
Sabres President Ted Black was in Rochester on Thursday morning to make an official announcement regarding a regular-season outdoor game being played in December by the Amerks.
That game will be part of a 10-day outdoor hockey festival that will take place at Frontier Field, home of the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings. The Amerks will kick off the event against an opponent to be determined, while the Rochester Institute of Technology will hold a men’s and women’s hockey double-header. The RIT men’s team will host Atlantic Hockey rival Niagara, while the women will play Clarkson.
The rink will also host several Section V high school hockey games, and blocks of ice time will be made available to the public.
“While the chance to play an outdoor game will be an exciting opportunity for our players and coaches, the event as a whole will allow the entire community to share in a special experience,” Black said in a news release.
The festival will run Dec. 13-22. Dates and ticket information are to be announced.