In this, a year of magical thinking for the Maple Leafs, nearly every game has had an aura of abracadabra.

Maybe suspended disbelief as the team makes believers out of skeptics around the league: Just look what we pulled out of the hat this time.

Even losses, apart from a handful of utter clunkers, have featured nuggets of wizardry from a buoyant, blossoming line-up.

Then along come the Sabres and saw the bunny in half.

In this Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre, it may simply have been a case of need versus want. Buffalo needed to stay within range of a playoff wild-card spot, trailing Toronto by seven points in the clustered Atlantic Division. And the Leafs were found wanting against a club that out-hit, out-skated, out-hustled, out-pounced and outscored them 3-1, on a troika of unanswered first-period goals.

“Being frustrated is a waste of time,” said coach Mike Babcock afterward. “Disappointed is what you should be.’’

Adding: “I was shocked that we weren’t ready to play.”

The sorcerer’s apprentice may have been Jack Eichel — two strides and he’s flying — who assisted on each of those opening frame pucks that got past Frederik Andersen. Not that the earnest Dane was singularly at fault; forwards laggard on the bustle-backcheck, a tangle-footed rearguard crew and apparently few Leafs (Nikita Zaitsev a notable exception) with the guts to lay on the body against an opponent of strapping size, poundage and orneriness right through the roster.

James van Riemsdyk, in his 500th NHL game, did engage in a brief “fight” with Rasmus Ristolainen — just about the time when Leafs caught up to the Sabres on the shot-clock after trailing 6-0 in the first, not getting any rubber on Robin Lehner until the stroke of nine minutes — but that set-to was little more than a grip ’n’ grope.

Now, of course fighting is a waste of time, almost an anachronism these days. But hitting is very much still a crucial part of the game. The Leafs, beyond a valiant hard-nose cadre that includes Matt Martin, Leo Komarov, even Nazem Kadri — a snotty board-splatter of captain Brian Gionta in the waning minutes — just don’t like to hit much.

The young ’uns, rightly vaunted for their skill and creativity, don’t like to hit at all. Just as queasy, now that we’re on the subject, is Jake Gardiner, who’d rather do the stick-reaching version of a bitch-slap than slow down an invading puck-carrier with a heft of the hip or a shoulder-roll into the boards.

Also, do tell, was William Nylander even dressed last night? Or was he wearing the cape of invisibility?

“I don’t think we really started playing till the second period, so . . .” observed Auston Matthews. “They took advantage of us coming out slow.”

Why the sluggishness?

“I don’t know. I think that first 10 minutes you’ve just got to keep it simple, I guess. Make sure the pucks get in deep. Not turning it over, not giving them free ice through the neutral zones. They’ve got fast guys who can make plays and they definitely did that tonight.”

The Leafs still have style but their grit is somewhat questionable. And this is precisely the time of the season when those unquantifiable factors matter most — when craft can be squelched by robustness and teams ratchet up the cussedness, the physical pounding. For the rookie crew, it’s not just about playing more games than ever before in their careers; it’s about playing nasty games, in the crunch of a race for the post-season.

“Towards the end of the season, there’s less and less space, teams fighting for playoff spots,” Matthews acknowledged. Yet he insisted: “For us I think that’s perfect. We’re a team that can make plays off the rush down low. We’ve just got to keep it simple.”

Though he has, indeed, felt the intensified physical jolting aimed at him specifically. “I think I’ve always felt that. I don’t shy away from that stuff. You’re kind of used to it.’’ Being Auston, he means. “Whether growing up, playing juniors or pro, you often get targeted. Guys are going to play you tough. I think it just ups your competitive level.”

The flashy rookie held his own in a dying moments scrap with six-foot-four Ristolainen. And wishbone-slight Mitch Marner had his teammates’ back, a good sign on an otherwise lousy evening.

“I saw Matty and him kind of getting into it, saw Matty get a couple (swats) up high,” Marner said. “So, you’ve got to help your teammate, get in there and help him out.”

Marner may find his offensive cleverness ground into the ice in the coming weeks. The Leafs and rookie points leader did, however, ignite the crowd and crack the home-side goose-egg on a typically breath-taking bit of Mitch business: blazing speed into the offensive zone, carrying the puck into the corner and around the net, flipping it out to the front where it fortuitously bounced in off Lehner for a power-play goal late in the second. That’s five goals and five assists for Marner in his last 10 games.

That episode was similar to an Andersen encounter with the puck at the start of the game — technically his first save of the night — albeit with a different result: The puck bounced off a scrum from a long shot, looped over Andersen’s shoulder and pinged off the post, dropping straight down an inch from the goal line before the Dane scooped it with his glove.

So, it looked like the Leafs had their magic and mojo going nicely, abetted by good fortune. Then bang-bang-bang.

Matthews lost a faceoff to Eichel, with the puck redirected to Evander Kane, who fired the puck home from a perfect shooting lane. It was the fourth time in the past five games Toronto had surrendered the opening goal.

The Sabres made it 2-0 with Gardiner off for hooking, and Sam Reinhart scoring off a 2-on-1 rush. Then it was Kane, again, at 18:02, somehow finding time and space surrounded by four Leafs and wristing it from the face-off circle over Anderson’s left shoulder.

The Leafs did eventually awaken from their stupor with some furious counter-attack in the third, including nearly four minutes with Andersen on the bench for an extra attacker. But this encounter was pretty much over after the first 10 minutes.

Toronto, now hanging onto the ledge of the second wild-card spot, chased the game for the rest of the night.

Never caught it.

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