The Buffalo Sabres hit Air Canada Centre tonight, winners of five straight.
They are the team the Maple Leafs don’t want to face because of the standings but must face for the very same reason.
Seven points behind, the Leafs already-slender hopes of making the Big Eight in the Eastern Conference hinges on somehow slowing down the Sabres.
All this represents a triumph of sorts for coach Lindy Ruff, blistered in the chat rooms and on the call-in shows as the Sabres struggled through the first desultory months of the season.
Ruff is no more Buffalo than the Peace Bridge. He owns a terrific winning percentage, .567, a trip to the Stanley Cup finals and has inherited two of the best goalies of their era, Dominik Hasek and Ryan Miller.
But to hear Ruff tell it, the team’s fortunes changed when he stopped thinking about what had left lost and started recognizing what he had.
In the off-season, the pattern of solid Sabres heading off for more money drew Henrik Tallinder to New Jersey and Toni Lydman to Anaheim.
“You have to take the team you have and find a style that fits,” Ruff said. “Our six-man group is a little more mobile and because of that we can have a four or five-man attack.”
While six-foot-eight Tyler Myers moves better than most apartment buildings on wheels, the rest are serviceable to good skaters: Chris Butler, Chris Montador, Shaonne Morrison, Andrej Sekera and Mike Webber.
The defence has done its part. The Sabres defence has outscored the Leaf rearguards 37-19.
“I think Lindy is right there,” said Miller.
“We have guys who move their feet and get up ice. When we’re playing well our game is about gap control and the neutral zone and eliminating scoring chances with foot speed instead of having to do the grunt work.”
Ruff insists the Sabres aren’t thinking about eliminating the Leafs.
“It hasn’t really been about eliminating one team it’s been about moving up in the standings.”
Miller, the reigning player of the week has made that possible. He went 3-0 with a 0.67goals against average last week.
“It’s no secret a big part of your success is your goaltending and he hasn’t made any mistakes the past week. ” Ruff said.
Any goalie on a roll can expect plenty of traffic and Miller insists he is ready for whatever the Leaf may throw at him, tonight.
“Lately it seems things around the crease aren’t being called so we’re going to have to get more dirty and mean.”