When you’re on the high wire, a hiccup plays like a suicide.
And so it is for the Toronto Maple Leafs, unpardonably flat in a 6-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, Saturday at Air Canada Centre.
The Leafs have nine games to play and everything about their situation is troubling. They played without captain and leading scorer Mats Sundin, who missed the most important game of the year, with a groin strain and is on a day-to-day watch.
Nik Antropov, the Leafs’ next best point-getter, left the game after five shifts in the first period with a knee injury. He too is day to day.
It gets worse. Boston’s overtime 3-2 win over Philadelphia was the worst possible result for the Leafs since it allotted precious points to two teams the Maple Leafs are chasing in the standings.
The Leafs are now six points out of eighth, and five behind the Sabres who set to rocket up the standings thanks to Saturday’s win and a 7-1 drubbing of the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday night.
Defenceman Ian White said he didn’t understand the team’s tepid effort.
“They played last night, we had two days off. We should have had all the jump.
“You want to come out and be flying like a playoff game. For us it should have been like a Game 5 or Game 6 situation, block as many shots as you can, hitting everybody, making no turnovers and getting everything deep. I think we were a little slow, a half second behind."
The Leafs were the mudders, the Sabres the thoroughbreds despite the loss of top-six defencemen Dmitri Kalinin, Jaroslav Spacek and the dependable Nathan Paetsch.
Still, the loss of Sundin, who was averaging two points a game over his last nine contests, reverberated through the dressing room.
The player put into the lineup in his place, Mark Bell, hasn’t played in two months because of a broken orbital bone. Not that there is any chance of replacing Sundin.
The thing about a hero is that sometimes, one is enough. You can ask 20 guys for effort. Magic is another thing. Look at Sundin’s game against Philadelphia Tuesday as he led the Leafs back from a 3-0 deficit with a goal and an assist.
“He’s one of the best players in the world and he’s the heart of our team,” said Leafs’ coach Paul Maurice. “When he goes and Nicky goes, we get a little small, very quickly. I think the fight was still there, but it certainly wasn’t easy.”
The Sabres scored the game’s opening goal seven minutes into the game when Ales Kotalik easily converted a feed from Derek Roy. It was a power play goal.
A goal by White evened things but the Sabres responded by spinning the puck around the Leafs end with impunity. Jochen Hecht flicked a shot past Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala. A little while later, some more soft coverage resulted in a goal by Drew Stafford. That made the score 3-1 Buffalo.
Jiri Tlusty tapped home a rebound for a power play marker to ignite the crowd seven minutes into the third period but Jason Pominville tapped the puck behind Toskala in an inexcusably easy two-on-zero to finish things with a little over fight minutes to play. Daniel Paille added another with five minutes left.
As if to underscore the desperation of the situation, Leafs coach Paul Maurice pulled Toskala for an extra attacker with 4:37 left. All that did was end the shutout of Sabres defenceman Henrik Tallinder who slapped the puck home from deep in his own end for his first goal of the season.
Then there is the notion of fatigue, especially as it applies to goalie Vesa Toskala. Toskala surrendered five goals. He has played 29 of the Leafs last 30 games and he was not especially sharp in this the most important game of the year.
“Vesa played great, the accountability was on the defence and the forwards,” said forward Jason Blake. “You’ve got to get the puck out over their blue line and into your blue line and for some reason we didn’t do it.”
The stat sheet favoured the Leafs in one area. They outshot the Sabres 32-30 but in terms of quality scoring chances, the Sabres were by far the better group.