Buffalo, New York has been called many things, including the Paris of the Niagara, but for the Maple Leafs it is simply known as Alcatraz.
The Leafs hit the HSBC Arena on Friday riding a string of three wins in four games.
That would be of immense comfort but for the fact that the Peace Bridge seems to sap the will of the Maple Leafs. Who can forget Bryan McCabe drilling the puck into his own net a few years back? That moment has come to symbolize the relationship between the two teams when they meet in Buffalo: if the Sabres don’t beat the Leafs, the visitors will go ahead and do it for them.
The Leafs are 25-54-6-2 in Buffalo and considering the lean years endured by both teams, that’s one nasty disparity
To make things worse, the Sabres’ franchise goaltender takes particular joy in sending the Leafs packing.
“I love nothing more than to get a win against them and send them an hour-and-a-half on their way,” Ryan Miller said last year and it sure is nice things didn’t get personal.
Let’s get one thing straight: the Leafs and the Sabres do not constitute a rivalry. To have a rivalry, you have to have both teams winning. Likewise, the Leafs and Senators are not rivals.
Toronto’s four playoff victories trump any paper-thin rationale the Senators could muster of superiority, let alone competetiveness. No competition, no rivalry.
The Leafs performance against Buffalo isn’t a rivalry any more than the relationship between the Road Runner and Wil E Coyote was. Overall, the Leafs have won one third of their games against Buffalo. HSBC hasn’t been so much an arena as a woodshed.
But what if…?
The Sabres are one of four teams (Florida, New Jersey and the Islanders are the other) below the Leafs in the Eastern Conference aggregate. If four points behind eighth-place Atlanta looks a little disconcerting in these days of glacial movements up the standings, bear in mind the Leafs have, at this writing, two games in hand on the Thrash.
The Sabres have been tepid at home, they are just 3-4 this month and overall Miller has descended to a pedestrian .908 save percentage with a 2.62 goals against average.Jonas Gustavsson
, crowned the go-to guy with the injury to Jean-Sebastian Giguere has a substantially better statistical portfolio than Miller. His 9.22 save percentage and 2.30 goals against put him 10th in the NHL in both categories.
There is, of course, that little thing about being unable to score. Still, some players have come back to life. Kristopher Versteeg has four goals in five games. Mikhail Grabovski
has scored in each of his last three games. Nikolai Kulemin
, coming off a two-goal game in a win over Dallas, has likely been the club’s most consistent forward but Tyler Bozak
’s inability to produce on the number one line has been prominent. Even the encouraging work of Nazem Kadri
(a point in four of his five games) can’t obscure the hole in the middle. Paired with the team’s most consistent goalscorer, Bozak has just three goals and six points in 20 games, but the Leafs are without a true number one centre who could allow Bozak to move to the second line.
What it comes down to is that maybe two teams who operate 90 minutes apart should get together on rivalry that would generate buzz on both sides of the bridge. The Sabres have certainly done their bit. Now, can the Leafs?