The Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t the only Eastern Conference team that could benefit from Philadelphia’s sudden meltdown.
But they’re the only team to thank for it. “Absolutely, that was huge,” Florida Panthers centre Stephen Weiss told The Canadian Press on Thursday. “We kept our eye on those games. The Leafs helped us out and we’re definitely thanking them.”
As buoyed as the never-say-die Leafs might be after back-to-back wins over the Flyers, they’re not alone in their chase for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. Don’t forget the Buffalo Sabres, Washington Capitals and Panthers – all technically slotted ahead of Toronto in the standings.
“We still think we have a chance,” said Capitals forward Brooks Laich. “We’re not concerned about what Toronto is doing or even for that matter what Philly or Buffalo or Florida is doing.
“We’re just trying to play our best and earn our way in. We don’t just want other teams helping us get in.”
The injury-riddled Sabres, winless in four games (0-2-2), remain ninth with 75 points – four behind the Flyers (79 points). The Caps, Panthers and Leafs all have 74 points although Toronto is ranked behind those two teams because it has one fewer win, a detail worth remembering come April 6 if a tiebreaker is needed.
Philadelphia, Buffalo and Washington have 11 games remaining while Florida and Toronto are down to 10.
Buffalo has reached a critical moment in its season. The Sabres host Carolina on Friday night and play at Toronto on Saturday night. The confidence on the young Sabres is sagging right now.
“Right now I would put it in the fragile category,” Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff told The Canadian Press. “We’re fragile. We need to make something good happen and it’s got to happen tomorrow because each game with a young team at this time of the year as the pressure mounts, the confidence starts to go the other way.”
The Sabres lost yet another defenceman Wednesday night when Nathan Paetsch sustained a concussion after a cheap shot by Pittsburgh’s Georges Laraque. Buffalo was already without Jaroslav Spacek (ribs) and Dmitri Kalinin (shoulder) on the blue-line and of course dealt star Brian Campbell to San Jose at the trade deadline.
“Our defence is pretty beat up, which has hurt us a little bit defensively but also hurt our transition game – which has typically been our strength,” said Ruff. “You take Campbell, Spacek, Kalinin and now Paetsch out of the lineup …
“We’ve tried to play the same game and I don’t think that game fits right now,” added Ruff. “We’re going to have to tighten things up and try to play a little closer to the vest.”
While the Sabres are slumping, the Panthers are rising. Long ago written off by most, Florida has used a season-high, five-game win streak to get back into the picture.
“I don’t think a lot of people are looking at us too much,” said Weiss, 24, who has four points (2-2) in the last four games. “But we’re getting on a roll and we’re still in it. So hopefully we can keep making some noise.”
They host the white-hot New York Rangers on Friday night, a team that hasn’t lost in regulation since Feb. 7 while going 10-0-3 in their last 13 games.
“That’s going to be our toughest game in a while,” said Weiss. “They’re really playing well defensively and they’ve got some guys up front that can hurt us. Looking forward to it though, should be a full building for us.
“The last week or so our crowds have been awesome.”
The Caps seemed out of it after back-to-back heart-breakers last weekend. First came a 2-1 loss in Boston with the Bruins scoring a pair of 5-on-3 goals in the last five minutes to take it. Then on Sunday, Caps rookie Nicklas Backstrom swept the puck into his own net to give Pittsburgh the winning goal in a 4-2 game.
“But both games we thought we played really well and we thought we deserved to win both games,” said Laich, 24, a native of Wawota, Sask. “We were disappointed but we had no choice but to park those ones and move on.
“We had a great game yesterday (3-2 win over Calgary) and now have a little more momentum going into tomorrow (versus Atlanta).”
The Caps’ biggest challenge will be a six-game road trip which begins next Tuesday in Nashville and wraps up March 29 at Florida.
“That’s going to be make-or-break time,” said Laich, who has eight goals in his last 11 games. “We want to see if we deserve to make the playoffs and those road games will be a true test. We have to come out with at least four or five of those.”
A look at the remaining schedule for all five teams:
8. Philadelphia, 79 points, 11 games left: Home (5) – Atlanta, N.Y. Rangers, N.Y. Islanders, New Jersey, Pittsburgh; Away (6) – Boston, Pittsburgh, N.Y. Rangers, New Jersey, N.Y. Islanders, Pittsburgh.
Last game: Sunday, April 6, home to Pittsburgh.
9. Buffalo, 75 points, 11 games left: Home (6) – Carolina, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Boston; Away (5) – Toronto, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Boston.
Last game: Saturday, April 5, at Boston.
10. Washington, 74 points, 11 games left: Home (5) – Atlanta, Boston, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Florida; Away (6) – Nashville, Chicago, Atlanta, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Florida.
Last game: Saturday, April 5, home to Florida.
11. Florida, 74 points, 10 games left: Home (6) – N.Y. Rangers, Atlanta, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Washington (4); Away – Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Carolina, Washington.
Last game: Saturday, April 5, at Washington.
12. Toronto, 74 points, 10 games left: Home (5) – Buffalo, Boston, Montreal, Buffalo, Ottawa; Away (5) – N.Y. Islanders, Buffalo, Ottawa, Boston, Montreal.
Last game: Saturday, April 5, at Montreal.