Leafs try to avoid falling on swords

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:14 AM ET

In degree of difficulty, sweeping the Buffalo Sabres in a home-and-home ranks right up there with climbing Mt. Everest in dress shoes.

Yet the Maple Leafs must aim high if they're serious about the final playoff spot, with 10 games to go and five teams separated by two points before last night. Forget that they've done it once in six attempts, going back to the Sabres' inaugural season in 1970-71. Or that in 11 back-to-back situations against the same team since the lockout ended, Toronto has been dusted five times, while splitting five, managing to up-end the Boston Bruins 5-1 and 10-2 the first week of January.

"We have to go in there and prove we belong in the playoffs," winger Darcy Tucker declared yesterday, though he prefaced his comments with a warning to his mates not to look past tomorrow night's opener at HSBC Arena. "We've played better in their building this year (two wins) because we've been hungry going in there. We need to play the same way, with passion and conviction."

Such words ring hollow when taking into account how the Leafs folded against bottom-feeder Washington on Friday, but Tucker's point about the Leafs saving their best games for the NHL's frontrunners is well taken.

QUALITY OPPONENT

"A quality opponent hasn't mattered as much the past few weeks and I think that's true around the NHL," coach Paul Maurice said. "The team that needs it the most has found a way to win. Calgary goes in and beats Detroit (Tuesday), we've beaten New Jersey and Ottawa, then Washington comes up and bumps us and Tampa Bay.

"So I don't know if the name is that important right now."

It would help Toronto's cause if Buffalo was easing off the gas to prepare for playoffs. But the Sabres have a shot at their first Presidents Trophy.

"They're looking for home ice (through the playoffs) because it has been good for them," Maurice said, no doubt referring in part to Buffalo's overall record of 48-21-6-1 when Leafs visit.

"There are three categories of teams right now; the ones in the playoff fight, the ones fighting for home ice and the ones just happy the season is dead."

The Leafs should take a blueprint of Tuesday's 2-1 win over the Devils into this weekend. Mats Sundin and his skyscraper wingers Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov did a number on the Devils' defence down low.

"I don't care what defensive pair the other team wants to put out, those guys will wear 'em down eventually," winger Jeff O'Neill said.

But the Sabres are unlikely to let goalie Andrew Raycroft and the Leafs' defence get away with the gaffes committed against New Jersey.

"They are so fast and so skilled," O'Neill said. "We have to stay out of the box, keep our feet moving and I think we'll have a physical advantage."


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