Better not good enough

BILL LANKHOF

, Last Updated: 8:18 AM ET

The buzzword around the Maple Leafs all week has been energy. They've got it. Just ask head coach Paul Maurice, or any of his exuberant Kiddie Korps, and there's enough wind to float a Zeppelin.

And, truth be told, it is possible to beat a lot of things with enthusiasm ...the Buffalo Sabres just aren't one of them.

Humbling the Boston Bruins is one thing. Doing the same to the Sabres, well, that could take a little more practice for the Maple Leafs.

Last night, the Leafs played their youth (or inexperience for you non-believers) and energy against the experienced and talented dervishes employed by the Sabres.

Youth did not win out: Buffalo 4, Toronto 3. "But we're right there," Andrew Raycroft said. "They're the best in the East but we hung in there with them."

The Sabres have the best record in the conference with just nine losses -- a total the Leafs came close to equalling last month with a couple of weeks of ineptitude.

But some things have changed. The Leafs were undefeated for 2007. And this was a Buffalo team that has rarely looked so vulnerable. It came into the ACC on a two-game losing streak. Any team that can lose 6-3 to the Ottawa Senators may be the top-seller in apparel in the nhl.com store, but since the calendar flipped over to 2007 that was more a result of its spiffy new duds than the play of the guys wearing them. For a team that hadn't lost three in a row since last March, the Sabres have been ordinary.

Still, the Sabres were so impressed by the Leafs' recent return from the grave they figured it was a good time to start backup goalie Martin Biron.

He stoned Mats Sundin in the first minute. Alex Steen was foiled. Toronto outshot the Sabres 16-13 in a first period of missed opportunities, like when a good forecheck set up Matt Stajan for disappointment, not a goal.

The Sabres got a highlight-reel goal from Chris Drury. Daniel Briere faked Raycroft and half the folks in the end reds out of their seats on the third Buffalo goal. Raycroft was everything from outstanding to horrid, all within 60 minutes. The Sabres went up 2-0 in the space of 39 seconds in the first period on floaters. The first was a particular irritant; Maurice admitting it probably should've been stopped. "You have to give (Buffalo) credit," Raycroft said, "one went off a shin pad; the other knuckleballed in and out of a couple legs and arms."

Nobody at this point could argue, at least not without having his sanity severely questioned, that the Leafs are equal on the talent quotient with the Sabres. Stajan is not often confused with Briere and John Pohl is no Thomas Vanek. And, that proof came on full display in a hectic final minute with Toronto looking for the tie. Pohl, standing to the right of Biron, had an open net. What happened next would leave fans muttering something like, "Darcy (as in Tucker) woulda had it."

But, the Leafs don't have Tucker. And, they didn't have the tying goal, either. They had Pohl hitting the outside of the netting. Energy is good but it doesn't always put the puck in the net. "It's frustrating to lose a game that you walk away from thinking you could've won," Maurice said.

But, if confidence comes from experience this patchwork team seems slowly to be finding its competitive legs. That doesn't mean it is about to go on a Stanley Cup run but at least it no longer looks like Ugly Betty at the Miss Universe pageant.

Against Boston the Leafs used a combination of dedication to defence, enthusiasm and determination, blended with a failure to believe that they are playing on the downside of the talent teeter-totter. So, last night Erik Westrum was on the power play. Chad Kilger was robustly effective. Pavel Kubina actually scored. It was a game in which the Leafs had as many chances as the Sabres. Twice they narrowed two-goal deficits.

Noted Darcy Tucker earlier this week: "It's awesome for the organization to see the way some of the young guys have come in and played. It can only be better for the club as we go down the road."

Nice. But against the Sabres "better" -- at least on this night -- wasn't quite good enough.


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