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Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri celebrates his goal against the Buffalo Sabres during the third period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto December 22, 2011. (MIKE CASSESE/Reuters)
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri celebrates his goal against the Buffalo Sabres during the third period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto December 22, 2011. (MIKE CASSESE/Reuters)

Leafs aim for big lead over struggling Sabres Add to ...

This is not how it was supposed to go for the Buffalo Sabres.

Not with a new billionaire owner in Terry Pegula. Not with the highest payroll in the league and new additions like Christian Ehrhoff, Robyn Regehr and Ville Leino.

But the Sabres have been bad this season, and especially in the last six weeks or so, with a 6-11-5 record in their last 22 games.

With their next two games against the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team they trail by six points, the Sabres realize they need to pick up points here quickly, starting Tuesday night in Toronto.

"Every game’s going to be important for us," defenceman Tyler Myers said. "We have a tough schedule, especially in January here before the all-star break, starting with tonight’s game, it’s going to be a big game every night.

"Urgency is at a premium," coach Lindy Ruff added.

Down the hall at the Air Canada Centre in the Leafs dressing room, the sentiment was reversed for Toronto, as players and coach Ron Wilson all talked about hopefully leaving Buffalo in their dust.

Two regulation wins in their next two games would give the Leafs a 10-point lead over the Sabres with 39 games to play, which should be enough to keep their division rival behind them for good.

"They're going to be one of those teams that they're going to be fighting for a spot all the way to the end," winger Clarke MacArthur said. "They're not going to give up. They've had a depleted lineup most of the year and they're missing some guys tonight so it's a good opportunity for us."

"It gives you a little bit more wiggle room when you can put teams farther in that rearview mirror behind you," coach Ron Wilson added. "The fact that they're games against our rival gets our juices flowing. Our focus is on ourselves and looking ahead in the standings."

The list of Sabres who have underperformed this season is a long one, with Ryan Miller and his .901 save percentage out front, followed by Leino(three goals), Drew Stafford (seven goals), Brad Boyes (three goals) and Myers (seven points).

For those who think the Leafs have had a bad run of injuries, Buffalo's is considerably worse, with 183 man-games lost to injury compared to Toronto's 159.


- The odd-man out on the Leafs blueline is going to be rookie Jake Gardiner again, as Wilson sticks with the lineup that got the win against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday.

- Along the same line of thought, Jonas Gustavsson makes his fourth straight start in goal and will continue to play as long as the Leafs are winning games. If you missed it earlier, this was my story on his recent run of 10 solid starts.

- Miller will start for the Sabres, as he's dominated the Leafs in his career, with a 25-12-0 record, 2.35 goals against average and .926 save percentage.

- Derek Roy (upper body) is a game-time decision for Buffalo.

- Wilson on Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul's terrific seasons: "Phil's never showed this kind of consistency. I'm not sure about Loops. But they've had a lot of opportunities every game, and just their own confidence [helps] They believe they're going to make an impact on the game. I think that has a lot to do with it."

- Luke Schenn didn't play a lot against Detroit, something Wilson also addressed: "Who's playing best gets the ice time. Other guys have performed a little bit better than Luke. But tonight's a new game, you reset at the start of every game, and the guys who end up with the most ice time are the ones that played the best that night. Every night it changes."

- Wilson on injured Leafs Tyler Bozak and John-Michael Liles: "We'll be healthy at some point. Bozie's a lot closer than John-Michael. Then we'll have some tough decisions, but we'll be an even better team when they're healthy."

Projected lineup

Lupul - Connolly - Kessel Crabb - Grabovski - Kulemin MacArthur - Lombardi - Kadri Brown - Steckel - Boyce

Aulie - Phaneuf Gunnarsson - Schenn Franson - Komisarek


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