If there is one miracle remaining in their magical bag of tricks, Ron Wilson and his players had better use it in order to slay the Leafs Killer named Ryan Miller on Tuesday night.
With playoff hopes melting away, the overhyped, overused, over-the-top phrase of “do-or-die game” will actually be applicable when the Leafs host Miller’s Buffalo Sabres at the Air Canada Centre.
Toronto’s playoff aspirations already are on life support as it is, but a loss to the eighth-place Sabres pretty much will pull the plug on their post-season hopes.
And you can bet Miller wants to be the one to yank that sucker out of the wall.
A Buffalo victory will put the Sabres nine points ahead of a Leafs team that will have just five games remaining on the schedule. In other words, eulogy time.
Making Toronto’s task that much more difficult is Miller, who arguably is the hottest goaltender in the National Hockey League right now.
With Miller putting together a magnificent stretch run, the Sabres have pulled away from playoff wannabes Toronto, Carolina, New Jersey and Atlanta by going 4-0-1 in their past five games. During that sizzling span, Miller has posted two shutouts and a sparkling goals-against average of 1.60.
Thanks in part to Miller’s play, the Sabres have not trailed in a game since they suffered a 1-0 loss to the Hurricanes on March 15 — a span of 300 minutes, 27 seconds. You don’t lose many hockey games when you subscribe to that formula.
In the Leafs’ favour is that recent history shows they can beat Miller.
If Wilson wants to underscore that point, he need only show his team a replay of its come-from behind 4-3 victory over the Sabres back on March 12. Third-period goals by Mikhail Grabovski and Phil Kessel erased a 3-2 Buffalo lead and, in the process, gave the Leafs confidence that they can overcome the dominance of the Sabres goalie, who entered that game with a lifetime record of 24-9-0, 2.18 goals-against average and .931 save percentage versus Toronto.
Can history repeat itself?
If the Maple Leafs want to keep their flickering dream alive of playing deep into the spring, it had better.
The recipe for success against Miller is simple: Get traffic in front of him. It was on the board prior to the previous meeting between the teams two weeks ago, a message the players obviously took to heart.
Despite dropping a hard-fought 4-2 decision to the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday night, the Leafs did show a penchant for going into the dirty areas bordering the Wings crease, a blueprint that played a significant role in both Toronto goals.
Joffrey Lupul literally was on top of Wings goalie Jimmy Howard when, despite appearing down and out, he managed to sweep the puck into the net to temporarily tie the contest at 2-2 in the third period. Lupul’s effort was named play of the day on ESPN’s SportsCenter south of the border.
Upon further review, the goal probably should have been waved off, since Lupul’s skate seemed to bump Howard’s leg just moments before the forward was sent tumbling into the Detroit goalie by Kris Draper. Either way, Lupul’s willingness to go to the net and create havoc could make him Miller’s worst enemy on Tuesday.
The same could be said for Darryl Boyce, who was planted right on Howard’s doorstep when Nazem Kadri’s screen shot from the top of the faceoff circle squeezed into the short side for Toronto’s opening goal in the first period.
Night after night, Boyce has shown no reluctance to get his nose dirty, even when it sometimes results in a bloody beak when all is said and done.
Kadri, by the way, is learning that being defensively responsible can result in better offensive numbers as well.
The offensively gifted rookie had just dropped back into a more responsible position near the Detroit blueline when the puck came to him on the play leading to his second career NHL goal.
In previous games, he would have charged deep into the offensive end, a decision that often led to odd-man rushes going the other way.
Heading into Tuesday’s clash, Miller has said that, when his Sabres pay attention to the minor details, the team has the potential to “beat anyone.”
Should they follow up on that claim by disposing of the Leafs at the ACC, it might be time for the city’s sporting focus to turn to the Blue Jays 2011 season opener on Friday.
If it hasn’t already.