But on Wednesday night, the roles looked as if they'd been reversed. The Leafs outhustled and outplayed the Flyers on the way to a 3-2 victory at Air Canada Centre. Jamal Mayers, Lee Stempniak and Ian White scored for the Leafs, who played with a desperation the Flyers could have used.
"I don't know about being a spoiler, but there's a lot of pride in this room," Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph said. "We've built a lot of chemistry over the year and I think it's showing here at the end of the year.
"We all get along well and we do a lot of fun things together. That's showing in our play."
Joseph made 32 saves but didn't face a lot of sustained pressure as the Leafs outworked the Flyers for most of the night.
"We wanted to play as if it was a playoff game, and for the most part we did," Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson said.
The Flyers remained fourth in the East with 92 points, the same as Pittsburgh, which has played one more game. But Philadelphia has lost three of its last four.
"The way we played, that's not a playoff team trying to win the Stanley Cup," defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. "Let's be honest, the next six games, it's playoff time for us. It's time to wake up and really, really bear down. It's hard to say what the reason is [for lackluster play] but, whatever it is, it has to change."
After Mayers and Philadelphia's Arron Asham scored in the first period, the Leafs took control in the second. Stempniak whacked the rebound of Jeff Finger's long shot past Martin Biron 1:54 into the period to put Toronto ahead to stay. White's shot from the left point went over Biron's left shoulder at 13:03 for a 3-1 lead. Flyers coach John Stevens pulled Biron and sent in Antero Niittymaki after Toronto took a 28-18 edge in shots.
Claude Giroux's power-play goal with 2:51 left in regulation made it a one-goal game, but the Flyers rarely tested Joseph the rest of the way.
The teams meet again Friday night in Philadelphia.
"Maybe we were looking too far ahead, focusing on the outcome and not the process," Stevens said. "Sometimes you have to stumble a bit to find that focus and effort."
The Thrashers aren't going to the playoffs. They may have assured that the Sabres won't be going there, either. Buffalo needed two points at Atlanta but got just one when Ilya Kovalchuk stole the puck and scored on a breakaway with 29.9 seconds remaining in overtime.
The loss ended Buffalo's three-game winning streak. With 83 points, the Sabres are five behind eighth-place Montreal for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
"It's a tough point to lose," coach Lindy Ruff said. "We had the opportunity to win it. Derek [Roy] had his breakaway. [Jason] Pominville had the great opportunity off the faceoff. [Jaroslav] Spacek had another great opportunity and didn't score. If you don't finish those off, you end up losing a point."
Thomas Vanek scored both goals for the Sabres, including the one that tied the game 2-2 at 13:56 of the second period. But he was the culprit on the game-winner, bouncing a pass off Kovalchuk's skate at the left point. Kovalchuk raced in alone and ripped a wrist shot through Ryan Miller's legs for his 41st goal of the season and 30th in 37 games.
"I tried to go hard to the goal and go for the No. 5 hole, and it went in," Kovalchuk said. "It's a very good win."
Said Vanek: "I gave their best player a breakaway to lose the game for us. It's disappointing. It's tough when you let your teammates down like that."
Vanek's power-play goal 7:01 into the game gave the Sabres the lead, but Atlanta rookie Zach Bogosian beat Miller with a wrist shot from the top of the right circle at 8:36 to make it 1-1.
Slava Kozlov swatted home a loose puck in the crease at 10:26 to give Atlanta its first lead. Vanek for the Sabres even when he fired a wrister from between the circle past Johan Hedberg during a 5-on-3 power play.
"We had a couple of chances and didn't bury them," defenseman Jaroslav Spacek said. "They won the game with one big mistake."
The Thrashers are closing strong. They've won three in a row and 10 of their last 13.
"We are playing the spoiler role, I guess," Bogosian said. "We are trying to play our hearts out. Hopefully we can do some damage around the league. We are showing right now that we are not a team to take lightly."
Washington's big guns rallied the Caps from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits to beat the pesky Islanders. Alex Ovechkin started the Caps' comeback in the second period and Mike Green had the tying and go-ahead goals 83 seconds apart in the third as the Caps moved three points ahead of New Jersey for second place in the East.
The two goals gave Green 30 for the season. He's the first NHL defenseman to reach 30 goals in a season since Washington's Kevin Hatcher in 1992-93. He's the first defenseman in NHL history to reach 30 goals in a season in which he'll play fewer than 70 games -- due to injuries, the most Green can play is 68. He also set a team record with 18 power-play goals.
"When he's on," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said, "he's pretty good to watch."
Kyle Okposo's first-period power-play goal stunned the Verizon Center crowd, and things got quieter when Frans Nielsen made it 2-0 just 37 seconds into the second period. But Ovechkin scored his 54th of the season by converting a feed from Sergei Fedorov at 5:27, and rookie Keith Aucoin tied it at 9:54 with his first NHL goal since March 2008.
Richard Park's breakaway backhander past Jose Theodore put the Islanders back in front 2:12 into the third period. However, the Caps took control of the play after that and capitalized on a pair of power plays. Green raced in from the left point and one-timed Alexander Semin's pass into the open left side at 10:55, then whisked a wrist shot from the right point that sailed past several bodies and past Joey MacDonald at 12:18.
"That's why he's so good. That's why he's probably going to win the Norris Trophy this year," MacDonald said about Green. "It's not the big, one-timer shot. It's a nice floater right through, and it's tough for a goaltender."
Nicklas Backstrom's empty-netter sealed the win, which moved the Caps within two points of officially clinching the Southeast Division title. They now have 47 wins, a total they haven't eclipsed since 1983-84, and 101 points, a mark they haven't topped since getting 102 in 1999-00.
Washington needs one more point to wrap up back-to-back Southeast Division titles. The Caps play second-place Carolina on Saturday.
"I think it is one of those situations; we have to do it ourselves, can't rely on anybody else, and just keep winning," Boudreau said. "Winning close games, being able to pull it out -- especially the last five games -- it gives you a lot of confidence that you are capable of doing that. That's something, whether you are playing the Boston Bruins or the New York Islanders, if you can do that, you will always believe that it can happen."
Material from wire services and team online and broadcast media was used in this report.