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TORONTO — It’s going to take time for Ted Nolan to rid the Buffalo Sabres of all their bad habits. Some things are so ingrained in their DNA – pitiful starts and defensive breakdowns, for example – that not even a master motivator can hide their lapses.

But after watching what happened following an 18-minute intermission Saturday, there’s reason to believe things will get better.

A typically bad first period doomed the Sabres, who lack the talent to overcome a 20-minute lapse. They came awfully close, though, showing newfound determination before dropping a 4-2 decision to Toronto.

“You find out the reasons why the record is the way it is,” said Nolan, who nonetheless found more encouraging signs in the loss than he did during Friday’s 3-1 victory over the Maple Leafs. “I thought we played much better. I thought the majority of the play was in their zone the whole third period and the last part of the second period. I was really impressed with it.

“We’ve got some corrections we have to make, and I’m looking forward to doing that.”

The Maple Leafs scored twice in the opening period en route to a 3-0 lead. The Sabres pulled within a goal in the third before Toronto iced it on the power play with 1:04 to play. The Sabres, who previously shied away after the lightest of shoves, rallied with dominating force.

After Toronto controlled the first period by attempting 26 of the 33 shots, the Sabres took over. They had a 58-20 advantage in shot attempts during the final two periods and finished the game with a 35-22 edge in shots on goal.

“The first period was terrible,” Buffalo forward John Scott said. “We were flat. We didn’t have any energy. Ted came in and told us. He said, ‘You guys were garbage.’

“The second and third we picked our game up, and I think you noticed the ice kind of tilted and we were giving it to them pretty good.”

Jamie McBain’s goal with 2:15 gone in third breathed tangible life into the Sabres’ cause. Tyler Ennis’ power-goal goal with 13:49 left put the Air Canada Centre crowd of 19,447 on edge.

“I didn’t like our first period, but I liked our game,” captain Steve Ott said. “We’ve seen dwelling on stuff before. There’s no dwelling anymore. This is continue to work, stick with it, and our second and third I thought we were the better team.”

The Sabres’ momentum came to a halt with 2:46 to go. Ville Leino picked up a tripping penalty, and Toronto’s Mason Raymond beat goaltender Jhonas Enroth with a high shot to drop the Sabres to 5-16-1.

“We had more shots than them, so we had a pretty good game, but you’ve got to start right away,” said Leino, who didn’t like the penalty call. “It was a tough call, I think, especially at that stage of the game.”

Said Nolan: “We can’t take that. We have full momentum, but I think he got a little bit frustrated and just took the guy’s feet from underneath him. Those are the types of things we’ll have to adjust.”

The way the team starts will be Nolan’s biggest adjustment. The Sabres’ tributes to the past continued in the first period. They harkened way back to, oh, five days ago with a 20-minute clunker.

“The first period was tough for everybody because we weren’t ready,” defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. “After that, when we worked hard, it felt great and easier.”

That’s the feeling they wanted to bring home on their bus. Following the back-to-back games, the Sabres will take today off and return to practice Monday. They host the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday in First Niagara Center.

“You’re not always going to have a good first. Let’s draw on what we did after,” Ott said. “We didn’t get our results that we want, but we’re 1-1 on this restart and I like both of our games.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com