Mike Ulmer has worked for seven news organizations including the National Post and, most recently, the Toronto Sun. Mike has written about the Leafs for 10 years and wrote Captains, a book about the club's greatest leaders.
(TORONTO) -- The Leafs playoff drive begins, ends or extends with back-to-back games against the Buffalo Sabres this weekend.
Game one is Friday in the jewel of Western New York and for the Leafs, fighting for the eighth and final playoffs spot in the Eastern Conference, there is not much different in the buildup. Every day, the same thing: annihilation or reprieve. Every weekend series, the telling conflict.
"It literally has been this way since January," said goalie Andrew Raycroft. "Every day we talk about it or the coaches talk about it. It's literally been 35 or 40 games."
There are advantages to that, of course. Should they manage to find their way to the post-season, the Leafs will have been playing playoff style hockey for months.
"Last year, you saw it with Edmonton just making the playoffs," Raycroft said. "Edmonton was just as good as Detroit was. It's not like it was pre-lockout when one team's payroll could be $80 million and the other payroll was $25 million."
The Sabres, first overall in the Eastern Conference, represent a substantial challenge for the Maple Leafs. Buffalo has won four of six meetings and outscored Toronto 9-2 over the last two. They have scored 52 more goals and surrendered 26 less but on the bright side, they've won twice in Buffalo and expect the return of defenceman Tomas Kaberle after eight games lost to concussion.
"If he's out there he gives us a dangerous weapon in all parts of the game," said winger Darcy Tucker.
"That's three passes a period," said Leafs coach Paul Maurice of what you get with Kaberle back. "On the power play, obviously, but in terms of being able to go back and get it, creating the offence, it's spending a minute and a half less a period in your own end by being able to go get it and put it on somebody's tape. The little things that don't get noticed are what you miss."
So how do the Leafs win Friday in Buffalo or Saturday at home.
"Our work has to be better than theirs," said Tucker. "That's when we seem to have success, when we do the little things well and we work on all aspects of our game. Our power play and penalty killing has to be good and we have to work."
Maurice admitted the Leafs can't skate with the Sabres.
"They're faster than we are," Maurice said. "The advantage is they're not so much faster that we can't make up for it in either working real hard or pushing ourselves. We've got enough speed in our lineup that if we play the game that we want to, it's not an issue."
Then there's home ice advantage. At least one Leaf thinks the Buds have it. It's a manageable jaunt across the Peace Bridge for Leaf fans.
"To be honest it's one of the easiest ones for us because there are more Leafs fans than Sabres fans," Raycroft said. "A lot of other places you get outnumbered a little bit but it's basically a home game for us. We kind of enjoy how loud it gets and how many Leaf jerseys are in the stands."
It figures to be an important night for the veteran players who know their way around their own end. That means another night of steady work for veteran Boyd Devereaux who garnered lots of ice time as the Leafs protected a 2-1 lead in Tuesday's win over New Jersey.
"I get excited about these games with guys flying around. That's the kind game I like to play," Deveraux said.