Leafs making no headway

Toronto Maple Leafs J.S. Aubin watches the puck as Buffalo Sabres Maxim Afinogenov and Chris Drury...

Toronto Maple Leafs J.S. Aubin watches the puck as Buffalo Sabres Maxim Afinogenov and Chris Drury break away from Leafs defence during NHL game in Toronto, April 3, 2006. (Alex Urosevic/Sun)

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 6:59 AM ET

NHL fans around the Golden Horseshoe are assured of seeing some playoff hockey this season.

Only this time they won't have to travel to Toronto to do it.

Not that is was really in doubt, but for the first time since 2001, the Buffalo Sabres will be in the post-season, clinching their berth with a 3-2 shootout victory over the Maple Leafs last night at the Air Canada Centre.

More importantly around here however, the Sabres, in the process, jammed another dagger into the Leafs fading playoff hopes.

With Tampa Bay's 4-1 victory over the Florida Panthers last night, the gap between the Leafs and the eighth- place Lightning widened to eight points.

Despite claiming seven of a possible eight points in their past four outings, the Leafs have made no headway in their pursuit of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

And now, more than ever, it appears there will be no post-season hockey at the ACC for the first time since the Leafs moved into their new arena in February of 1999.

"We've had a nice little run here and we've done it by just worrying about ourselves," forward Matt Stajan said of the team's recent hot streak.

"It's too bad we're in this situation, though. We needed some of these other teams ahead of us to lose and it's just not happening.

"We put ourselves in this spot and we're paying for it, but we're not about to give up, either."

Fitting in nicely on the SOS Line with Jeff O'Neill and Alexander Steen, Stajan's third goal in four games knotted the score at 2-2 early in the third period.

"Alex and I clicked right off the bat in training camp, so it's no surprise,"Stajan said.

Neither was the fact that the Leafs lost in a shootout.

Again.

"When you go down like that, it sucks," said Stajan, who watched his team's record in the shootout drop to 3-6 this season.

Scoring continues to be a problem for the Leafs in this penalty-shot format, which was adopted prior to the 2005-06 season.

Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker and Alexei Ponikarovsky were all thwarted in their attempts by Buffalo goaltender Marty Biron, leaving the Leafs just 4-for-21 in their shootout attempts this season.

Sabres forward Maxim Afinogenov, meanwhile, scored the only shootout goal Buffalo would need with a nifty deke of Leafs goaltender Jean-Sebastien Aubin.

"I wish I could have that one back,"Aubin said. "I would like to see it again. He made me move one way, then came back the other way. I felt like if I had been a little more patient, I could have stuck my stick in his way.

"But it was a great move and a great goal. You have to give it to him."

Aubin need not apologize for anything. The journeyman goaltender quickly is becoming a cult hero in these parts, claiming third-star honours by stopping 34 of 36 Sabres shots.

He had no chance on either of Buffalo's goals by Afinogenov and Derek Roy in regulation time,

Recent callup John Pohl scored Toronto's other goal.

After the final horn had sounded, a livid Sabres coach Lindy Ruff accused Toronto's Darcy Tucker of trying to take out winger Jochen Hecht, who is out indefinitely with a knee injury.

Yes, there is still spice in this Golden Horseshoe rivalry, even if it appears, once again, that only one of the two teams will make the playoffs.


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