SABRES (18-18-5) at MAPLE LEAFS (21-15-5)
TV: MSG-B, SNET-O
Buffalo 2-6-2; Toronto 5-3-2
This is the third of six meetings between these Northeast Division rivals, with the fourth coming on Friday back in Buffalo. The teams split the first two matchups in mid-December, with both teams winning on home ice by a one-goal margin. Overall, Toronto has won four of five, including three straight at the Air Canada Center.
One offense features two of the top scoring threats in the League, while the other is struggling to score with any consistency. Toronto's Phil Kessel
and Joffrey Lupul
are burning up the League and keeping the Maple Leafs in contention for their first playoff berth in seven seasons. Meanwhile, Buffalo has dropped five of six to mostly middling Eastern Conference opponents, and the Sabres scored only 11 goals over that stretch.
If 11th-place Buffalo hopes to close the six-point gap that separates it from Toronto this week, it must score. The Sabres have failed to score more than two goals in each of their last seven losses. That trend continued in Saturday's 2-1 overtime loss to Winnipeg at First Niagara Center. After practice Monday, coach Lindy Ruff told media that Buffalo must improve on the road, where they are 8-9-0 but have lost six in a row.
"To lose six in a row on the road … our road play has been very disappointing," Ruff said. "We've got to start winning on the road. I think that's where the biggest damage is going to come from. You're going to have to play your system real solid, get great goaltending, it's going to be a lot of little things."
Kessel (24-24-48) and Lupul (17-30-47) are in a dead heat with the Sedin brothers to become the season's first 100-point duo. If their recent form is any indication, the Leafs' attackers may cross the line first. Kessel has an eight-game points streak, including goals in each of his last four. Lupul has points in seven of eight, including a four-point (1 G, 3 A) outing on Jan. 3 against Tampa Bay. Combined, the two have led Toronto to an undefeated 3-0-0 mark in 2012, with the Leafs outscoring opponents 15-6 over that stretch.
"This is where the stakes kind of go up," Lupul said. "This is the more fun part of the year. This is where you want to play your best hockey.
"We've put our team in the position where we can be a playoff team, but all we've done right now is set ourselves up."
Kessel has 3 goals and 3 assists in his last five games against Buffalo. On the opposite side, Thomas Vanek
has 5 goals and 6 assists in his last seven in the series.
A long injury list won't do Buffalo any favors. Center Derek Roy
(arm/shoulder) and blueliner Christian Ehrhoff
(upper body) are out indefinitely, while Andrej Sekera
(upper body), Colin Stuart
(lower body), Tyler Ennis
(left ankle) and Corey Tropp (upper body) are on injured reserve. … For Toronto, Tyler Bozak
(shoulder), John-Michael Liles
(concussion-like symptoms) and Colby Armstrong
(concussion/foot) are on IR.
The lack of production is putting the goaltenders in a protracted position, as both Jhonas Enroth
and usual starter Ryan Miller
enter Tuesday shouldering forgettable recent marks.
"It's tough to win a game with one goal," said Enroth, who made 39 saves Saturday but fell to 0-4-2 in his last six outings. Miller, who Ruff said would start Tuesday, is scarcely an improvement, with a 2-5-0 record and 3.38 goals-against average since making 28 saves in the Sabres' 5-4 win over Toronto on Dec. 16.
Adding injury to insult for Buffalo, Vanek, its scoring leader with 19 goals -- five more than the second-best Sabre, Jason Pominville
-- took a puck to the midsection early in the first. Vanek played through the injury, and Ruff indicated after the game that Vanek should be ready to go Tuesday.
"He was playing hurt, but got through it," Ruff said. "I don't think there's any issue of him (not) playing next week."