With losses mounting, a poor home record, league-worst penalty-killing and a lineup in flux, the Maple Leafs need a little Christmas cheer.
But they’ll have to work for it Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres and goalie Ryan Miller, the team that gives them the most grief in the Eastern Conference.
With Buffalo breathing down their necks for the last playoff position and already holding a 1-0 lead in the season’s series, Toronto requires a statement game.
“It’s a big four-pointer,” said goaltender James Reimer, who has just one win since returning from his early-season head injury (1-3-2).
“We’re a solid, quick team in here and if we keep the penalties to a minimum we’ll have a great chance. We have a great makeup to this team and all the right assets to do a whole lot of winning.”
At this juncture, however, with two games to go before a brief Christmas break and then a three-game road trip, the Leafs are lagging behind their early-season pace. They are 2-5-2, which in today’s NHL is enough for a significant dip in the standings.
Since Monday’s loss to the Kings, where the Leafs did play well, coach Ron Wilson has had to move two players to injured reserve (wingers Colby Armstrong and Philippe Dupuis), call up two Marlies (Nazem Kadri and Darryl Boyce) and make room for the return of centre David Steckel. Kadri, Toronto’s first pick and seventh overall in 2009, is particularly pumped in his second recall of the year, playing on a line with Clarke MacArthur and Tim Connolly. Boyce will help the penalty killing.
In an interesting pre-game announcement, Wilson said that defenceman Keith Aulie will be playing against Buffalo, which means one of regulars Jake Gardiner or Cody Franson will sit. The rookie Gardiner, a minus five during the current three-game losing streak, is the likely candidate, though Wilson would not reveal his choice until game time.
The Leafs are currently ranked 21st in home ice points production with a record of 7-5-4, though a few teams in playoff positions at present are below Toronto.
“We have to get off to a good start, score early ... there are a thousand things you can say,” Wilson replied to a question of why Toronto doesn’t do better at the Air Canada Centre.
The Sabres are having some injury issues of their own, but big guns such as Miller, and forwards Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville will be ready to face the Leafs. Miller’s record against Toronto in 36 games is 25-11, with a 2.33 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage, plus four shutouts. Wilson knows him well from coaching Team USA at the Olympics.
“It’s not about rattling him,” Wilson said regarding the idea of physically crowding his crease. “It’s about him seeing the puck. He plays an aggressive style and we have to make it hard on him to see the puck.”