TORONTO – Darcy Tucker and Bryan McCabe feel healthy enough to return the lineup and it’s not a moment too soon for these Toronto Maple Leafs.
Friday’s game in Buffalo represents the kind the Maple Leafs could use as a building block by pulling out a rare win at HSBC Arena.
Toronto has had a losing record against Northeast Division opponents the past two seasons and hasn’t qualified for the playoffs during that time. It’s no wonder, really – the NHL’s current schedule has teams playing divisional games 39 per cent of the time.
Wins over teams like the Sabres are important to the Maple Leafs.
“I think our division is probably one of the best in the league,” said forward Matt Stajan. “So obviously you’re kind of playing better teams more with the unbalanced schedule.
“But there’s no excuse – you’ve got to beat the teams in your division to get to the playoffs.”
One way Toronto could help its own cause on Friday is by cashing in on some of its power-play chances. The Maple Leafs have just 10 goals with the man advantage this season while allowing five short-handed goals against.
They have some excuse given that the team’s first power-play unit hasn’t played together all season up until this point. That will happen for the first time in Buffalo, with McCabe and Tucker joining Kyle Wellwood (who played his first game Tuesday), Mats Sundin and Tomas Kaberle.
Those players went through some drills with coach Paul Maurice before practice on Thursday. Maurice knows the important role that special teams play.
“If you’re getting power-play minutes and not scoring it just seeps in,” he said. “It affects your 5-on-5 game greatly and I think it has.”
His thinking is that if a team can’t rely on scoring power-play goals, it tries to hard to force things offensively and leaves itself prone to defensive mistakes.
Maurice is happy to have two of his more veteran players back in the lineup. Even though Tucker and McCabe are primarily offensive players, they’re being relied upon to help improve the team defensively.
“We’re not holding any Selke Award winners back, we don’t have them in the stands,” he said. “This is our team.”
That team will be in tough in Buffalo. The Sabres have taken a step back after winning the Presidents’ Trophy a year ago, but they always seem to have the Leafs number.
When the two played at HSBC Arena last month, Toronto blew a two-goal lead before losing in overtime when McCabe inadvertently knocked the puck into his own goal.
“It’s a great rivalry,” said veteran defenceman Tomas Kaberle. “It seems like we always play tight games with them and we have a tough time in their building.
“Last game there we should have won.”
Stajan says Buffalo is his favourite place to play on the road other than Montreal. Maurice also loves the atmosphere there.
“It’s pretty pro-Leaf a lot of times,” he said. “A lot of these buildings that are close to ours, there’s enough of a Leaf presence in them to upset the home fans and it just really raises the energy.”
The coach expects one of his more energetic players to be Tucker.
He’s missed seven games with a knee injury and has grown impatient while waiting for his health to return. The knee brace under his equipment won’t stop him from playing his normal tough game.
“I’ve tried to take this time to get my mind fresh and clean and ready to play,” said Tucker. “I can play far better than I was earlier in the year. That’s my main goal, to come back and be hungry and be very gritty for the hockey club.
“We need wins and whatever that takes, we’re ready to try and get that accomplished.”
Toronto has had a few breaks in its schedule the past couple weeks and has spent more time talking about improving its 6-7-3 record than having chances to actually do it.
Starting Friday in Buffalo, the Maple Leafs will play five of their next six games against divisional opponents.
“We’ve got to find ways to beat these teams now and make sure we’re ahead of them coming down the stretch,” said Stajan.