Sabres give Leafs something to aspire to

BILL LANKHOF

, Last Updated: 9:53 PM ET

Toronto coach Ron Wilson had a simple explanation for the Buffalo Sabres’ recent dominance of the Maple Leafs.

”There are no secrets. Buffalo has been a better team,” Wilson said Monday morning.

That’s the uncomplicated way of explaining how the Sabres could build a seven-game win streak at the Air Canada Centre before Monday night’s renewal of hostilities.

There have been a lot of little reasons.

And, suffice to say imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, the Leafs might want to do some things Buffalo’s way other than the post-game chicken wings.

The Sabres have found success using persistence, truculence, and a dash of brilliant netminding.

In other words, they are what the Leafs hope to be some day.

Not that the Sabres are NHL juggernauts. They’re not. Playoff spectators two years running, in fact.

But what the Sabres do have is a team that most often is more than the sum of its parts. The Maple Leafs have a history of adding up to less.

The Sabres have a franchise goalie, a long-serving coach, and regularly raid the NHL bargain basement with success. They don’t do it with big-name free agents and before this season many people wouldn’t have known Tyler Myers from Mike Myers. Adam Mair was declared unworthy by the Leafs almost a decade ago but is part of one of the NHL’s top penalty killing units.

Bit players doing small things adding up to big results have moved the Sabres from playoff wannabes to third in the conference.

And small things Monday night added up to some of that joy for the Leafs.

Wilson wanted players to go to the net and Jason Blake crashed Sabres netminder Ryan Miller on the opening shift. Viktor Stalberg went hard around the defence to bank a shot in with a team-mate crashing the net, and Ian White scored from the edge of the crease.

Lunch bucket hockey. A page out of the Buffalo playbook.

The Sabres have a lineup that could hardly be called all-star packed yet they’ve made it to the conference final two of the past four years. Even when they didn’t make the playoffs they were within a game last year and that was without their top goal scorer and injuries to Miller.

The Leafs? They’ve signed big-time free agents like Blake and Mike Komisarek and Phil Kessel. The result was the worst September in team history.

The Sabres signed foot soldiers Mike Grier and Steve Montador and have gone to first in the division.

When people look at the Sabres they see only two players in double figures while Sabres’ forward Jason Pominville sees balance.

“The numbers we have might not be as high as a lot of teams but we have depth,” he said. “We brought in guys like Grier and Montador. Good leaders. Guys who’ve been around and both are vocal in the dressing room.”

Monday, the opening goal came from Nathan Paetsh — a one-goal sniper on the season.

The Leafs change coaches and management more often than Paris Hilton changes boyfriends.

Lindy Ruff has a dozen seasons behind the Buffalo bench. If nothing else, that says stability. The system hasn’t changed from the team that missed the playoffs. It’s just, said Pominville, that the players have become more comfortable with it.

“We’re buying in a lot better than we did last year,” Pominville said. “Everybody is involved. We’re playing four lines and that’s helping. Guys are playing a bit less but they’re fresher when we do play.”

The Leafs? They’re still buying into Wilson’s way in perhaps the same way the Sabres had to buy into Ruff’s.

“(Buffalo’s) a tight-checking group. They clog it up real fast and support each other,” Blake said. “It makes it difficult for forwards to find openings. They play within a system that they’ve perfected and it makes them successful. We have to do the same thing in our system.

“To be successful you have to play as a group ... and I think we’ve started to do that but we’ve got a way to go.”

If Monday night is some indication, the Leafs may not always win, but they are learning. Slowly.


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