After going 8-2-4 in the month of February to pull themselves out of the Eastern Conference basement and back into the playoff picture, a so-so start to the month of March has left the Leafs in a tough situation coming into tonight’s matchup with the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres stretched their lead in the standings over Toronto to six points with an overtime win over Boston on Thursday, while the Leafs were unable to repeat their previous week’s performance against Philadelphia and fell in regulation.
While the Sabres may not end up being the team the Buds need to catch to make the playoffs anymore, (currently sitting in 7th with 74 points, with a game in hand on the Rangers and a 2-point lead on the Hurricanes), since the Leafs have just 3 games left – including tonight – against teams that are within striking distance of them, they need to make the most of this opportunity.
While many close games are often decided by which team has the better special teams unit, tonight’s matchup will feature a couple of powerplays that have been especially inept of late. The Leafs have gone just 1-for-23 in the month of March, while the Sabres have converted just 2 of their 24 powerplays since the end of February. Both teams have killed well recently, with the Leafs’ only powerplay goal allowed this month coming during the five minute major assessed early in Thursday night’s game to King Bonehead Mike Komisarek. Buffalo has successfully killed 18 of the their last 21 penalties, including all 7 called against them in a losing effort to Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
Toronto will have to hope they can shake the demons that have hounded them on Hockey Night in Canada in 2011, as they have yet to win on the big stage since New Year’s Day. It’s a bit difficult to put together a solid winning streak when you can’t win on Saturday nights, but it’s something the Leafs will have to get past tonight.
Carolina and New York also play tonight, with the Canes taking on Columbus and the Rangers headed out West to play the Sharks. A win for the Buds is a must, and, with a little help, could go a long way to keep them in the race. With the oft-mentioned 90-point mark looking more and more like it will be a necessity to make this year’s playoffs, the Leafs will need to salvage every point they can over their remaining 14 games. (That’s a 10-2-2 record, for you math majors out there). When it’s all said and done, the Leafs need to take their remaining schedule one game at a time, avoid coming out flat like they have in the past, and regain some of that youthful confidence they showed so much of during February’s point streak.
Puck drops at 7:00 PM ET, and for those of us watching in the States, the game will be televised on NHL Network. Can’t wait to hear what Grapes has to say on the Chara-Pacioretty controversy. Go Leafs!