TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs playoff drive has hit a speed bump.
Mats Sundin has been ruled out of Saturday night’s game against the Buffalo Sabres because of a groin strain.
“We’re going to try to manage it,” coach Paul Maurice said after the morning skate. “This is a one game thing we (hope). If it’s not, we’re going to have to find a way to win without him.”
The Maple Leafs captain was replaced by Mark Bell, who returns to the lineup after missing more than two months while recovering from a broken orbital bone.
It’s a critical time for the team to lose its leading scorer. The Maple Leafs need to win at least eight of their final 10 games to have a chance at earning a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Sundin suffered his groin strain during Wednesday’s win in Philadelphia. He missed the final two periods of that game before skating lightly on Friday and again Saturday morning.
He took the ice ahead of his teammates for about 20 minutes before making the decision not to play.
“We want to make this as short term as we possibly can,” said Maurice. “There’s been no downturn. He felt on the ice as he thought he would before he went out. He wasn’t surprised by anything.
“But he won’t play tonight and we’re very hopeful that he will on Tuesday (at Long Island).”
Sundin has been the catalyst for much of Toronto’s recent success. He had been on a nine-game point streak before the game in Philadelphia, racking up eight goals and 16 points over that stretch.
Saturday’s game was the first the 37-year-old missed all season. In 72 games, Sundin has 32 goals and 77 points – one more than he had last year.
It’s been a much tougher season for Bell. He was forced to sit out the first 15 games while serving a suspension following a drunk driving conviction and was only starting to find a place in the lineup when he had his orbital bone broken during a fight with Pittsburgh’s Ryan Malone on Jan. 3.
He had surgery to repair the bone and will play with a full facemask while it continues to heal. He’s thrilled to get back in the lineup.
“I think there’s always nerves when you’ve had a long layoff,” said Bell. “But it’s more excitement than nerves right now.”
The biggest player the Leafs will lean on for support in Sundin’s absence is Alex Steen. He moves from the wing and will centre the team’s top line with Nik Antropov and Jiri Tlusty.
Steen always played centre while he was growing up but has been a winger since entering the NHL three years ago. After Sundin went down with his injury in Philadelphia, Steen was moved to the middle and played well.
“After a couple shifts, I got back and felt pretty comfortable,” he said. “It doesn’t change the style of game you play but it changes the way you play out there.”