MAPLE LEAFS (22-15-5) at SABRES (18-19-5)
TV : TSN, MSG-Buffalo
LAST 10: Toronto 6-2-2; Buffalo 2-6-2.
Season Series: This is the fourth of six meetings this season between the Northeast Division rivals. After losing 5-4 in Buffalo on Dec. 16, the Leafs have won the last two meetings, including a 2-0 win in Toronto on Tuesday in which Jonas Gustavsson made 32 saves for his second shutout in three starts.
Big Story: Both Buffalo and Toronto were in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race a month ago but have recently gone in decidedly different directions. The Leafs are riding a four-game winning streak in which they have outscored their opponents 17-6 to move into seventh place in the East, while the Sabres have lost their last three and six of their past seven to fall to 11th.
Team Scope :
Maple Leafs: With three straight losses to close out 2011, the Leafs appeared to be falling out of the playoff hunt in the East. But they've bounced back in 2012, winning their first four games in the new year. The streak started with convincing home wins over Tampa Bay and Winnipeg before the team blew a 3-0 lead over Detroit on Saturday, only to win 4-3 on a goal by Joffrey Lupul.
The Leafs were able to continue the winning trend on Tuesday when they opened up the home-and-home series with Buffalo. Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski scored in the first period, giving Toronto all the offense it would need. Gustavsson continued to make his claim for the Leafs' starting goaltending spot, making 14 of his 32 saves in the third period.
Sabres: After a strong start to their season, Buffalo struggled through the last month of 2011, posting a 4-7-3 record in December. 2012 hasn't been any better. After starting the new year by beating Edmonton 4-3, they lost 4-2 at Carolina and 2-1 in overtime to Winnipeg before being blanked in Toronto on Tuesday.
If any mid-January contest can be considered a must-win game, this would be the one. The Sabres hit the road after Friday night for a seven-game trip.
"We need to get one [win] and it will make the boys in here feel good and hopefully we can string them on from there," Sabres forward Drew Stafford said after the game on Tuesday. "We've got a great opportunity in the rematch in a couple days."
Who's Hot: Gustavsson has been practically unbeatable for Toronto, going 4-0-0 in January with a 1.51 GAA and .950 save percentage. As they have most of the season, Lupul and Phil Kessel are pacing the Leafs offense with seven and four points respectively in the last four games. … Jason Pominville has been one of the few Sabres finding the scoresheet lately, notching four points in his last four games.
Injury Report: Tyler Bozak (shoulder), Colby Armstrong (concussion-like symptoms), and Colby Armstrong (foot) are on IR for the Leafs. … The Sabres' infirmary is a busy place, with Thomas Vanek questionable for Friday with an upper-body injury and Derek Roy (arm), Andrej Sekera (upper body), Tyler Ennis (ankle), and Christian Ehrhoff (upper body) out.
Stat Pack: Toronto will have a great opportunity to put some space between themselves and the rest of the Eastern Conference pack. Following their game in Buffalo, they will open a season-long five-game homestand in which they'll host five Eastern Conference teams. With a 12-5-4 home record that's among the best in the League, the homestand could give Toronto a big boost.
Puck Drop: The Sabres will have to improve their road play during their upcoming seven-game trip if they hope to salvage the season. Buffalo has lost seven straight on the road and, with just 34 goals in 18 road games, is tied with Anaheim for last in the League in road scoring.