SABRES (33-26-8) at MAPLE LEAFS (29-29-10)
TV: CBC (HD), NHLN-US (HD)
Buffalo 6-2-2; Toronto 4-2-4
This is the fifth meeting this season between Northeast-Division rivals battling for a playoff spot. Buffalo had won the first three matchups before the Leafs beat the Sabres in their last game on Feb. 16. That night in Buffalo, Joey Crabb
’s first goal of the season proved the winner in a 2-1 Leafs victory. The teams will play again on Mar. 29.
Both the Leafs and Sabres have been riding their respective hot streaks into playoff contention. But in such a tight race, their play in the past week could mean contrasting playoff fortunes.
With three wins in their last four games, including victories over division-leading Boston and Philadelphia, the Sabres have leapfrogged a number of teams to take over the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. The Leafs, on the other hand, have lost three in a row, hurting their chances of making the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season.
With an 18-8-4 record since Jan. 1, Buffalo has gone from the verge of a lost season to a playoff spot. While Buffalo’s 74 points tie them with the eighth-place Rangers , they possess two games in hand over their state rivals, giving them leverage down the stretch.
In a divisional matchup on Thursday in Boston, Tim Connolly
scored the tying goal in the third period before Brad Boyes
scored in overtime, giving Buffalo a big 4-3 win. With 3 goals in six games with the Sabres, Boyes has definitely made an instant impact since being acquired by Buffalo at the trade deadline.
"When you score in overtime this time of year it's exciting," Boyes said of his first game-winner with Buffalo. "It's about getting points now. It doesn't matter who we play."
After an 8-2-4 February record brought Toronto back into the playoff conversation, a 2-2-1 record in March has suddenly put them behind the eight ball. Against the Flyers on Thursday, Joffrey Lupul
’s third-period goal cut the Philly lead to one, but the Leafs ultimately fell 3-2 to the Eastern Conference's top team.
With the loss, the Leafs now find themselves four points out of the final playoff spot with just 14 games remaining. Considering how valuable every point is at this point in the season, the regulation loss magnified the importance of Saturday’s matchup with the Sabres.
"I guess this just makes Saturday's game all the more important," said Lupul. "There's a lot of games left but this is basically as close to a must-win as you can get."
Boyes has 6 points in six games with Buffalo. Teammate Thomas Vanek
has 5 points in his current three-game point streak. … For the Leafs, Mikhail Grabovski
has 7 points in his last seven games while Lupul has 2 goals in his last three games.
For the Sabres, Patrick Kaleta
is out with a leg injury and Jochen Hecht
is questionable with an upper-body injury while Derek Roy
(quad surgery) is on IR. … Leafs winger Fredrik Sjostrom is out with an upper-body injury while Colton Orr
(concussion) is on IR.
In Grabovski, Phil Kessel
, and Nikolai Kulemin
, Toronto has three players with 25 or more goals this season. The last time the Leafs had three players with that kind of scoring output was the 2002-03 season, when Mats Sundin, Alexander Mogilny, and Owen Nolan achieved the feat.
Despite his career season with the Leafs, former Sabre Clarke MacArthur
hasn’t enjoyed the Buffalo-Toronto rivalry in recent years. After starting his Sabres career with 4 points in his first four games against the Leafs, he went on to register just 2 assists in his next 14 games against Toronto. In four games on the other side of the rivalry this season, MacArthur has just one assist against Buffalo.