Leafs Beat

Leafs fighting for playoff life against Sabres

Toronto — The Globe and Mail

Mikhail Grabovski and the Toronto Maple Leafs face the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night.. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) (Bruce Bennett/2011 Getty Images)

There were no players. No practice.

No one on the ice at all.

Just a quiet, empty arena and a veteran NHL coach surrounded by 20 media members, all of whom were curious to know just how big Saturday's game against the Buffalo Sabres will be for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Is it a must-win? A should-win?

A Game 7, do or die, end of the line battle royale?

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Ron Wilson didn't bite on any of it, at least not at first, saying only that every game was now vital with only 14 to play and the Leafs "probably" needing as many as 11 wins to close the year. And three of those can come against teams like Buffalo that they're chasing in the standings.

"Well, first, we're not in a Game 7 situation here," Wilson said. "But this is a good experience for our players and I said to them that these are the games that you want to participate in, especially if you view yourself as a top hockey player. You want to make a difference when it matters most.

"Your best players have to perform at their best and role players have to give their best and then some. That's what we talked about and that's what you expect in a situation like we're facing.

"We haven't talked about it being life and death. It's not."

Even so, given the Leafs' situation, Saturday's game certainly carries more significance than most of Toronto's first 68.

The Leafs are six points back of the seventh and eighth place Sabres and New York Rangers, with a game in hand on New York and one more played than Buffalo. Making up ground on the Sabres is, in theory, the easiest way in given Toronto will play two home games against them in their next nine games.

Win twice, in regulation, and the Leafs have shaved four points off a six-point margin. Lose twice, and the Sabres are close to untouchable, as far as Toronto's concerned.

Statistically speaking, a win Saturday is more about keeping hope alive than getting all that close to the dance.

According to sportsclubstats.com, Toronto's slim playoff chances - currently at 2.3 per cent - will be almost five times greater (3.9 per cent) after a regulation win on Saturday compared to if they lose in regulation (0.8 per cent).

Those obviously aren't great odds, either way, but Wilson considers keeping his crew - one of the youngest groups in the NHL - in the race as long as possible beneficial to "the process" of improving his team long term.

"These are big games," Wilson said. "I think we'll just try and have some fun tomorrow night. You play to get involved in big games. This is a part of the process we're going through."

The coach then decided to play along with the press a little, offering a headline to work with for a game that will be played more than a month before the playoffs even begin.

"Tomorrow's our biggest game of the year," Wilson said, "so [we'll]enjoy it."

While the players didn't skate Friday, they did gather at the team's practice rink early in the morning to hear from the coaches and watch some video to prepare for the game.

On his way out of the building and with his parents Bill and Karen in town from tiny Rouleau, Sask., defenceman Keith Aulie said Wilson's message heading into Saturday was clear.

"He emphasized that this is our playoffs right now," Aulie said. "For us, on the outside looking in, the playoffs start early. It's a race to the end here and every point's huge."

And they need an awful lot of them.