The Toronto Maple Leafs can thank the Montreal Canadiens for a stroke of luck heading into their game Thursday night against the Buffalo Sabres.
Sabres winger Thomas Vanek, who usually feasts on the Maple Leafs, will be missing when the teams meet at the First Niagara Center. He is still too sore to play after being hit near the hip by a shot during the Sabres' 3-2 overtime win in Montreal on Tuesday night.
"He was better [Thursday] and we're hoping to get him on the ice tomorrow," Sabres interim head coach Ron Rolston said after the team's game-day skate. Rolston hopes to have Vanek, the Sabres' leading point-getter with 31 in 27 games, back in the lineup by Saturday.
This is good news for the Leafs, as Vanek, 29, has 47 points in 47 games against Toronto in his NHL career. He scored the winning goal in the Sabres' only win against the Maple Leafs this season, a 2-1 decision in Toronto on Jan. 21.
However, the Leafs still have to face Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller, who is probably the biggest single reason why they never seem to win in Buffalo, although they managed a 4-3 overtime win the last time they were here, on Jan. 29. Miller, who has a 28-15-1 career record against the Leafs with a .921 save percentage, has more wins (28) and more shutouts (four) against the Leafs than he does against any other NHL team.
The Leafs desperately need a win against the Sabres, as they have to make up ground in the Eastern Conference playoff race after a recent five-game winless streak. After the Sabres game, the Leafs face a home-and-home set against the Boston Bruins, who never have much trouble with the Leafs. This makes it imperative they pick up wins against struggling opponents like the Sabres, who are 13th in the conference with an 11-15-4 and unlikely to make the playoffs.
But wins in Buffalo are never easy, despite the fact the Sabres are just 4-5-1 in their last 10 games against the Maple Leafs. At home, it is a different story for the Sabres, even though Maple Leafs fans usually show up in enough numbers to make the First Niagara Center sound almost like a Toronto rink. In their last 10 home games against the Leafs, the Sabres are 8-1-1.
The Leafs will have lineup problems of their own thanks to forward Joffrey Lupul's hit on Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman in Wednesday night's 4-2 win that broke the Leafs' winless streak. Lupul appeared to contact Hedman's head with his shoulder and was given a two-minute minor penalty for a hit to the head. Hedman left the game but later returned.
Lupul, who has three goals in two games since returning from a broken arm, has a telephone hearing Thursday afternoon with NHL vice-president Brendan Shanahan about the hit. It would be no surprise if Shanahan gives Lupul a suspension.
The Leafs called up Ryan Hamilton from their Toronto Marlies farm team to replace Lupul if he is suspended. Someone with the Sabres has a sense of humour about the situation. On the whiteboard in the Sabres dressing room that lists the opposing lines, someone erased Lupul's name and filled in Mats Sundin.
Leafs defenceman Mike Komisarek cleared NHL waivers on Thursday, clearing the way for his demotion to the Marlies.