Little more than one month into the season, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres already face large Northeast Division deficits. Merely making the playoffs could be difficult if the teams can't shake their early season struggles.
The Maple Leafs are expected to get a pair of key players back in the lineup Friday night as they try to post a rare road victory against the Sabres.
Residing in the same division as defending conference champion Ottawa figured to make it very hard for Toronto or Buffalo to finish first. The Senators have played even beyond expectations, winning 13 of their first 15 games to take firm control of the division in November.
The Maple Leafs (6-7-3) could find themselves out of the playoffs for the third straight season if their defense and goaltending don't improve. They have allowed a league-high 62 goals, as neither Vesa Toskala nor Andrew Raycroft has played well enough to seize control of the No. 1 goaltending role.
Toskala allowed four goals on 13 shots before he was replaced by Raycroft at 8:08 of the second period in a 5-1 loss Tuesday at Ottawa.
Nik Antropov scored his team-leading ninth goal to provide the only offense for Toronto, which has lost three of four.
"They really took the game away from us right away and after that it was just a matter of them coasting right through the rest of the hockey game," said center Kyle Wellwood, who made his season debut after having surgery for a sports hernia.
Although it may not help them become better defensively, the Leafs will be happy to get rugged forward Darcy Tucker and defenseman Bryan McCabe back on Friday.
Tucker has missed seven games with a knee injury while a sore groin has sidelined McCabe for six contests.
"I've tried to take this time to get my mind fresh and clean and ready to play," Tucker said. "I can play far better than I was earlier in the year. That's my main goal, to come back and be hungry and be very gritty for the hockey club."
Tucker and McCabe should help on the power play, where the Leafs have scored only 10 goals in 76 opportunities while allowing an NHL-worst five short-handed goals for the opposition.
While a porous defense is Toronto's biggest problem, Buffalo (6-7-1) has had trouble scoring with only seven goals in its last four games.
The Sabres ended their second three-game skid of the season Wednesday with a 2-1 overtime victory over Boston on Clarke MacArthur's goal 3:16 into the extra period.
"It wasn't our best game, but it wasn't our worst either," Buffalo defenseman Brian Campbell said. "Wins are important. We have to be able to take advantage of these points and start climbing."
Getting production from an unexpected source like MacArthur is important because the Sabres are without five injured regulars, including centers Adam Mair and Tim Connolly, who both missed their first game after being hurt in Monday's 2-0 loss at Montreal.
The Sabres defeated the Leafs 5-4 on Oct. 15, when Ales Kotalik scored a power-play goal with 3.7 seconds left in overtime. Buffalo improved to 15-5-2 with one tie against Toronto since the start of the 2003-04 season.