Preview: Sabres at Maple Leafs

The Buffalo Sabres have sent a message to the entire Eastern Conference, particularly those in the playoff race. That message is, we’re not going anywhere.

A downright refusal to be irrelevant in April and May has propelled the Sabres to 3 straight wins, and continuing a trend of a team who’s turned into one of the NHL’s most dominant since the new year began. Since January 1, Buffalo is 23-9-5, and is tied for 3rd place in the NHL for most points in the calendar year 2011. The Sabres’ slow start means that despite this success, they’re still fighting for a playoff spot, but they are also 11-3-3 since Terry Pegula became the team’s new owner, and 9-3-2 so far in March. Buffalo’s recent success has thus earned them a 5-point lead for that 8th spot in the Eastern conference. The Carolina Hurricanes are the closest team on the outside looking in, with 80 points to Buffalo’s 85. Also in the Eastern conference fray, are the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers, who hold spots 6 and 7 in the East. The Canadiens have been shutout in three consecutive games, which began when they fell 2-0 to Buffalo last week. Montreal faces off against Atlanta Thrashers tonight, while the Rangers and Sabres will play tomorrow night at HSBC Arena.

Here’s what this all means: The Sabres see a huge opportunity here. While a three-game win streak is great for the team, they aren’t satisfied. Tonight, they’ll play at the Air Canada Center against the Toronto Maple Leafs and can put the Leafs 9 points out of a playoff spot with only 6 games left – essentially knocking them out of contention. This would temporarily place the Sabres in a 3-way tie for the 6th, 7th, and 8th spots in the East which would be shared with Montreal and New York – pending the Canadiens’ result against Atlanta tonight. What makes things more interesting, is that the Sabres also have a game tomorrow, less than 24 hours after tonight’s game, they’ll be back at home in Buffalo facing one of the teams they could potentially be tied with – the New York Rangers.

The Sabres’ opportunity to continue the win streak and win both games against the Maple Leafs and the Rangers, is enormous. This would solidify at least 7th place in the East for Buffalo, and possibly even 6th place if the Thrashers are able to beat the Canadiens tonight. Still a lot of ifs, and the Sabres need to focus on one game at a time. Given the fact they’re on consecutive games, however, it’s not something that’s easy to do. Let’s take a look at tonight’s game:

Buffalo (38-28-9, 85 points) comes into the Air Canada Center on 3-game win streak. They’ll play the Toronto Maple Leafs (34-32-10, 78 points) who are barely alive in the playoff race and will be all but eliminated with a loss tonight. However, the Leafs have beaten the Sabres the last two times they’ve faced them this season. In mid-February, Toronto downed Buffalo 2-1 in HSBC Arena and ended almost a 3-year winless streak in that particular arena. Earlier this month the two teams met again and the Sabres were unable to keep a third period lead. They fell to Toronto 4-3 in a tight game. Both teams have huge incentives tonight – Toronto facing elimination and Buffalo looking to ensure it’s playoff positioning – so expect some great, fast-paced hockey.

Sabres defenseman Jordan Leopold will remain out with a lower body injury. Fellow defenseman Mike Grier will be a game-time decision.

The Sabres and Maple Leafs will face-off at 7:00PM eastern time, and the game can be seen locally on MSG.

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