April 1, 2006TORONTO (CP) --
The Toronto Maple Leafs are playing like a team with the weight of the world off their shoulders.
Three straight wins over playoff-bound teams have followed the two biggest losses of the season in Montreal, when their post-season chances took a serious if not fatal blow.
|Antropov potted two goals on Saturday. |
(Graig Abel photography)
"I think it can be a theory, it's happened to a lot of teams,'' Leafs coach Pat Quinn said after Saturday night's 7-0 pasting of the Buffalo Sabres. "When the pressure's on to be a playoff team, it's sometimes difficult to win. Yes, it's a possibility but I don't think it's the case with this group.
"You don't escape the pressure in this town.''
Nik Antropov scored twice in a five-goal first period Saturday as the Leafs looked like world-beaters against the slumping Sabres. Where was this hockey last week against the Canadiens?
"We had a couple of team meetings after those two losses and we've really got it together now,'' said Antropov.
Matt Stajan, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Tie Domi, Ian White and Jeff O'Neill also scored for the Maple Leafs (35-32-6), who saw J.S. Aubin win his third straight start, making 24 saves to record only the third shutout of the season for the Leafs.
"We're just playing real well defensively,'' said Aubin. "And we're not saying that we're done yet.''
The Leafs, who remained 11th in the Eastern Conference, moved to within seven points of a playoff spot thanks to Tampa's 4-2 loss at Florida on Saturday night. New Jersey (sixth) and Montreal (seventh) stayed nine points ahead of Toronto with their wins Saturday. Ninth-place Atlanta moved to within five points of eighth-place Tampa with a win over Carolina while the 10th-place Panthers kept their hopes alive and are now six points behind.
"It looks pretty grim but we're just trying to play desperate,'' said Ponikarovsky. "We just have to try and win every game and see what happens at the end.''
The Leafs, who have nine games left, are playing some of their best hockey of the season, their transition game featuring more speed and their attack more creativity. And the Leafs managed to score seven goals without top scoring defencemen Bryan McCabe or Tomas Kaberle collecting a single point.
"Our quickness was not there for while this season,'' said Quinn. "For some reason the last few games we've moved the puck real well. We're getting quicker at it.''
The Sabres (45-23-6) fell to 1-7-1 in their last nine games and will hope to bounce back Monday night as the two teams wrap up back-to-back games at the Air Canada Centre. They were awful on this night, outskated, outhustled and outchanced by a team 20 points below them in standings.
"They're not where they are (in the standings) because they don't compete or show up to play,'' Quinn said of the Sabres. "You can bet they'll be ready to go Monday night.''
This game was over just over six minutes into the first period.
O'Neill opened the scoring 2:05 into the game, taking a nifty pass from Alexander Steen and beating Sabres starter Ryan Miller five-hole with a wrist shot from the slot.
White scored his first NHL goal at 4:49, his shot from the point deflecting off a Sabres defenceman and past a screened Miller. The Sabres goalie got the hook after Domi made it 3-0 just 39 seconds later, deflecting a Luke Richardson shot. Miller gave up three goals on six shots.
Martin Biron didn't fare much better, Mats Sundin's shot bouncing off Antropov's chest and behind him at 6:24 to make it 4-0.
Antropov kept the party going at 15:20, sliding a shot underneath Biron while falling down and the Leafs had the crowd of 19,434 dancing in the aisles with a 5-0 lead. Biron got pulled as well as Miller returned to start the second period.
Ponikarovsky made it 6-0 at 4:33 of the third period when he rifled a wrist shot from the high slot that beat Miller top corner to the glove side. Stajan kept the onslaught going with power-play goal at 10:21, and the scoreboard wasn't lying: 7-0 Leafs.
Sabres winger Paul Gaustad tried to let off some steam by dropping the gloves with Toronto defenceman Wade Belak, and Belak made the middleweight pay with a mouthful of right hands.
Notes: Star Buffalo centre Daniel Briere sat out the remainder of his two-game suspension for a high-sticking incident with Boston's Brian Leetch. Veteran defenceman Teppo Numminen (knee) and forward Jochen Hecht (knee) were out for the Sabres ... The Sabres fell to 15-9-2 against Northeast Division rivals while the Leafs improved to 10-15-3 ... Mikael Tellqvist has Toronto's two other shutouts this season, blanking Atlanta 4-0 Dec. 1 and Pittsburgh 1-0 March 19 ... The last Maple Leaf goalie to begin his Toronto career with three straight wins was Damien Rhodes, who won his first six starts.