|Mikael Tellqvist is suddenly the Maple Leafs' No. 1 goalie with Ed Belfour hurting and not expected to return next season. (Toronto Sun File/Greg Henkenhaf)
That old Curse of Buffalo isn't just a spooky stat for the Maple Leafs any more, it's mutated into a playoff killer.
With a miserable record of 19-45-6-1 across the Niagara River, 0-2 this season, the Leafs can't afford to write off their final two games there, starting tonight (7 p.m.).
Those 12 wins the Leafs need in the final 18 games to reach the 90-point safety zone must come from somewhere. Why not a couple at HSBC Arena?
"You guys ask us that every year," winger Darcy Tucker sighed yesterday at Lakeshore Lions Arena. "I don't know what it is (about Buffalo).
"Maybe we have to go and plant loonies on the other side of the border."
Winger Tie Domi wasn't much help in coming up with an answer, either.
"I don't even want to talk about it, I dread the question," he said. "But it seems like the last few times we've been there, we were right in the game and we just put ourselves into penalty trouble. We have a skilled group, we just have to get more into the game and have better results 5-on-5."
But both Tucker and Domi concede few National Hockey League teams haven't succumbed to the Sabres' whirlwind in this revival year.
After three seasons out of the playoffs, Buffalo's record is 43-16-1-4, right in the thick of the division and conference first-place hunt.
"They play a high-tempo game and their goaltenders have been good for the most part," Tucker said.
Once more, the Leafs will go into HSBC with the advantage of thousands of fans and a less-than-taxing travel schedule. In fact, because this game kicks off a three-game trip, Toronto will fly right over the QEW traffic this morning in its chartered jet.
"(Those factors) should be good for us," Tucker said.
"Everything has to come to an end. For us, we're banking on it being (tonight)."
The Leafs also have tried all manner of off-ice preparation for a game in Buffalo, from practising in Toronto and arriving at the last minute, to going there the day before as if they were visiting Vancouver.
"What we need is less talk (about psychology) and more results on the ice," Domi said.
At least the Leafs are looking more like a playoff team lately, taking seven of a possible eight points the past four games.
Goaltender Ed Belfour will miss tonight's meeting for certain, but a pumped-up Mikael Tellqvist is good to go.
Mats Sundin and Jason Allison have scored in three of the past four games, the energy line of Domi, Clarke Wilm and Ben Ondrus is making waves and the power play is slowly coming back to life.
The only Leaf scratch at practice yesterday besides Belfour was Alex Steen, resting his foot after a shot block in Tuesday's win over Boston. He is expected back tonight.