TORONTO (CP) - The Buffalo Sabres sent a statement to two potential first-round opponents this week.
An 8-5 win over Montreal in Buffalo on Friday night was sandwiched in between a pair of wins at the Air Canada Centre, Saturday night's 3-1 decision over the Toronto Maple Leafs an important reminder that a superior opponent awaits them should they faceoff in April.
"Beating Montreal last night, beating Toronto back-to-back in their building, these are teams we might face in the first round of the playoffs," said star centre Daniel Briere of the Sabres. "Mentally these are big wins."
Especially considering Toronto and Montreal had beat Buffalo the last time they met in January. The Eastern Conference-leading Sabres don't need those teams building any kind of confidence against them.
"For a while there we had some trouble in our own division," said Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff. "I think we've come out of that. We've played well against Ottawa, we've played well against Montreal, we've played well in these two games against Toronto. ... It was a good statement for us."
Drew Stafford, Nathan Paetsch and Tony Lydman scored Saturday for the injury-riddled Sabres (44-16-5), who also pounded the Leafs 6-1 here Tuesday. Ryan Miller was outstanding again in goal for Buffalo, stopping 26 shots.
"They're not first for nothing," said Leafs goalie J.S. Aubin, who stopped 26 of 29 shots. "They're lucky, they're good, they're fast, they're young. I thought we played pretty solid, we were in the game pretty much the whole game, we just couldn't solve Miller tonight."
Nik Antropov scored late for the Leafs (31-26-9), who remained 10th in the Eastern Conference, one point behind Montreal - who lost at Boston 3-1 on Saturday. Toronto also remained two points behind the final playoff spot held by the defending Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes, who play at Atlanta on Sunday afternoon.
The loss spoiled the return of fan favourite Darcy Tucker, who hadn't played since Jan. 1 while recovering from hairline fractures in his left foot. Tucker played on a fourth line with Travis Green and Chad Kilger but also reclaimed his regular spot on the power play.
"We had a pretty good start to the game," said Tucker. "(But) we give them the first goal, and they play pretty well with the lead."
The first-place Sabres have lost only once in regulation in their last 11 games (9-1-1) despite missing one third of their regular lineup through injury. But it speaks to the depth of the organization with callups such as Stafford, Clarke MacArthur and Michael Ryan stepping in and filling the void without any dropoff.
"That's just how this organization is run, the way the minors are done in (AHL) Rochester, the coaching staff there, the systems are pretty much the same," said Stafford. "All the guys that are up right now, we all have the same kind of attitude, we're willing to learn and work."
Aubin started his first game since Dec. 29, ending Andrew Raycroft's consecutive streak of starts at 26.
Lydman opened the scoring 4:52 in the second period after an evenly played opening 20 minutes, his point shot deflecting off a Leaf body and past a screened Aubin.
It was 2-0 after Drew Stafford, on a power play, deftly tipped a pass behind Aubin with 2:07 left in the middle period.
Paetsch, with his first NHL goal, put the result out of doubt with 3:42 left in the third period when he beat Aubin from the slot with a wrist shot. Antropov picked up his 12th of the season just 32 seconds later but it was too little too late.
The Sabres went 1-for-5 on the power play while Toronto was 0-for-6.
"We need to get our power play going," said Tucker. "It wasn't good tonight. I thought we had some good point-blank chances, but (Miller) was good."
Notes: With both top defencemen Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina sidelined, tough guy Wade Belak reverted to defence ... The return of Tucker sent Boyd Devereaux to the press box as a healthy scratch ... The injury list is still deep for Buffalo. Forwards Chris Drury, Maxim Afinogenov, Ales Kotalik, Daniel Paille, Andrew Peters, Paul Gaustad, Tim Connolly and defenceman Jaroslav Spacek are all out ... The Leafs host Washington on Tuesday before playing Ottawa in a home-and-home Thursday and Saturday.