TORONTO - Reality, it has been said, bites.
The Maple Leafs have been able to keep reality at bay with nibbles in the win column, but the team they unsuccessfully have been trying to catch, the Buffalo Sabres, simply won’t lose.
At least, not as much as the Leafs would like.
Just six games remain for the Leafs in the 2010-11 regular season, and the Sabres are at the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night. The math is not good for Toronto. They’re seven points behind the Sabres for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and Buffalo has a game in hand.
“You have to keep your spirits up, because you never know what can happen,” Leafs winger and former Sabre Clarke MacArthur said. “If we win out and they win two (of seven games), who knows? The biggest thing is we have to get within five points of them again.”
If it feels like the Leafs have been spinning their wheels in ice ruts despite playing some fine hockey, it’s because they have. The Leafs, since the all-star break, are 15-7-5. But Buffalo has given them nothing, coming in at 15-7-4 since the NHL’s annual waste of a weekend.
The Sabres continuously stick it to the Leafs, and though Toronto has won two in a row against Buffalo, the overall numbers are not good.
Since the 2004-05 lockout ended, Buffalo is 29-11-1 against Toronto, with the 29 victories the most they have had against any team. In fact, it’s nearly the best case of dominance in that time frame in the NHL; only the Nashville Predators, who have beaten the Columbus Blue Jackets 30 times, have owned an opponent with more authority.
Much of the Leafs’ problem lies with Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, who has 24 wins in 34 career decisions versus Toronto. It’s the most wins Miller has against any NHL team.
And wouldn’t you know it, but just when the Leafs absolutely have to win, Miller is hot, recording two shutouts in his past three games. That garnered first-star-of-the-week honours for Miller, it was announced on Monday.
“In the two games I have been here (against Buffalo), I have seen enough of him,” Leafs left winger Joffrey Lupul said. “I could never see him again and it would be fine with me. Just like any great goalie, we have to get in front of him, go to the net, get in his face, maybe bump him a little bit. You never know.”
What’s certain with the Leafs is even with their precarious position, collectively, they’re in a relatively good mood. Unlike past years, where hope was just a four-letter word, there’s a different attitude in the dressing room.
“It has turned around 180 degrees,” defenceman Luke Schenn said. “The negative thoughts are gone.
“In a perfect world, you would have clinched a playoff spot, but it is a lot more fun playing for a spot down the stretch than it is playing for pride or being the spoiler. We’re not just going to shut it down and let it go to waste.”
The Leafs might be the ones trying to snuff the Sabres had they not had such a brutal run through November.
Starting with a 2-0 loss to the Bruins in Boston on Oct. 28, the Leafs won just three games in 16, a slide that ended when they won back-to-back games in the first week of December.
It didn’t help that captain Dion Phaneuf was injured for the majority of the skid. Had the Leafs managed to win even two or three of those games — they lost twice in a shootout and once in overtime in that span — the match on Tuesday night might not be so crucial.
“The easy thing to do is to look back in the past, and it was a tough month that hurt us a lot,” Schenn said. “But you can’t do would have, could have, should have. We’re just thinking about (Tuesday night).”