TORONTO – As far as the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres are concerned, they have a little bit too much in common right now.
With injuries, losing streaks and pressure mounting, there’s no denying the importance of Thursday’s meeting between the division rivals at Air Canada Centre. They’re both among the group of seven Eastern Conference teams separated by only four points.
“We need to win games,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Wednesday after practice. “You’ve got to find a way to fight through even key injuries … and take advantage of situations to win games. We’ve been able to tread water. I think (Tuesday’s loss in Ottawa) put us a little bit under (playoff position) and we need to bounce back and win a game.
“It’s a tough league.”
Reminders of that have been plentiful on both ends of the Leafs-Sabres rivalry. Buffalo has been playing without seven regulars, although that number will shrink slightly as forward Patrick Kaleta is expected to draw back into the lineup following a month away with a groin injury.
Toronto lost forwards Colby Armstrong (concussion) and Philippe Dupuis (upper body) this week, forcing it to recall Nazem Kadri and Darryl Boyce from the American Hockey League.
Both players were with the NHL team during a strong second half a year ago. Kadri, in particular, has the ability to be a difference-maker and is coming off being named the AHL’s player of the month in November. The 21-year-old forward will be slotted on a scoring line with Tim Connolly and Clarke MacArthur to start.
“Last year in the second half of the season I thought he did a really good job,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “He was good on the boards. He didn’t probably get as many offensive looks as he needs to be successful, but playing with Clarkie and Timmy he should get plenty of opportunities offensively.
“We’ll get him out there when we can on the power play as well because that’s one of the areas he’s really good at the American League.”
The last victory for the Sabres came in a 5-4 game against Toronto last week at First Niagara Center. Since then, they were hammered 8-3 in Pittsburgh on Saturday and lost 4-1 to Ottawa on Tuesday—part of a stretch where the team has gone 3-6-1.
The injured players feel no different than the team’s fans at the moment.
“I know it’s frustrating for everyone that’s watching—there’s a slew of us that are watching together,” said forward Brad Boyes, who is nearing a return from an ankle sprain. “It’s tough just to know that we can’t get down there because we want to help out. The guys that we have out are guys that contribute and chip in.”
Toronto has also been struggling with just two wins in its last nine games. Wilson intends to go back to goaltender James Reimer against the Sabres. He’s been working his way back into a groove and played well during a 3-2 shootout loss to Los Angeles earlier in the week.
Following Thursday’s game, the Leafs visit the New York Islanders on Friday before breaking for Christmas.
The Sabres hit the break after the game in Toronto and are eager to go out on a winning note.
“There’s no excuses,” said Kaleta. “Every team goes through injuries. You’ve got to go out there and battle and work as hard as you can every night. We’ve got to keep it simple and get back to that and start a run here.”
Ruff is just looking forward to seeing one of his injured regulars back in the lineup. He hopes most of the others aren’t far behind.
“We’ve had a lot (of players) going out,” said Ruff. “But it’s a step in the right direction if we can keep what we have healthy and keep getting numbers back.”
Note: The NHL Players’ Association and the family of former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson are donating 55 sets of hockey equipment to Kasabonika Lake First Nation in Northern Ontario. It was donated through the NHLPA’s “Goals&Dreams” fund in honour of Pearson’s commitment to sport, particularly hockey.