“It’s going to be an interesting home and home because they’re fighting for their lives,” Sabres star Daniel Briere told The Canadian Press on Thursday. “And you know for us, it’s a good thing, it’s tough when you’re playing teams that aren’t going anywhere, aren’t fighting for anything.
“So it certainly won’t be too hard to get motivated for these two weekend games.”
Game 1 goes Friday night in Buffalo and Game 2 Saturday night at Toronto.
“This is the best team, maybe, in the league,” Leafs coach Paul Maurice, referring to the Sabres, told reporters after practice Thursday. “And we’re going to have to play our very best this weekend.”
Leafs fans will once again cross the border in droves and invade HSBC Arena.
“That’s why it makes it so interesting to play against the Leafs at home,” said Briere. “I know it’s kind of weird to be at home and it’s almost half and half in the building but at the same time it makes for a special atmosphere and an easy game to get up for.”
The Sabres hold a 4-2-0 series lead on the season but those two losses came on home ice. Given the possibility of a No. 1 against No. 8 matchup in the first round of the playoffs, the last thing the Sabres want is to drop a third game at home to the Leafs and give them any kind of confidence in a building that for years has given Toronto so many troubles.
“Especially against a team you might face in the first round, you don’t want to let them roll over you,” said Briere, who leads the Sabres with a career-high 87 points (30-57). “You want to play sound hockey and let them know that it’s not going to be an easy task facing the Sabres in the first round, if ever it happens.”
While the Leafs are in a six-team battle for the final three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, the first-place Sabres still have something to play for as well.
“We still want to secure our division and hopefully win the Eastern Conference, which would secure home-ice advantage,” head coach Lindy Ruff said Thursday.
“It’s the time of year where you want to play good hockey because I think those good habits lead to good habits going into the playoffs.”
The Leafs hope to get star defenceman Tomas Kaberle back from a concussion. He’s been out since March 2 after being levelled into the boards on a late hit from New Jersey’s Cam Janssen.
“We should know tomorrow whether he gets cleared (by doctors),” Maurice said.
Buffalo knows what Kaberle brings to the table.
“If Kaberle comes back I think it changes the look of their defence a lot,” Briere said.
The Sabres remain without forwards Maxim Afinogenov (wrist), Ales Kotalik (knee), Tim Connolly (knee) and Paul Gaustad (ankle) and defenceman Tony Lydman (upper body).
Lydman is day to day while Kotalik could soon return.
“I would expect sometime next week,” said Ruff. “He’s been skating with us and feels a lot better.”
The dynamic Afinogenov hasn’t played since Feb. 15.
“We really don’t anticipate him until maybe the end of the regular season or possibly just for the playoffs,” said Ruff.
Gaustad was originally ruled out for the entire year but that could possibly change.
“There may be a chance that if we go long enough he could be ready to come back at the very end of the playoffs,” said Ruff. “He’s a long shot in that category.”
As for the hard-luck Connolly, he’s been skating every other day.
“He’ll skate our next two pre-game skates and hopefully, if everything goes well, he’ll get involved with some type of practices next week,” said Ruff. “And then we just evaluate it from there. Obviously he’s a ways behind in the conditioning but there is some thought of maybe just utilizing him in a special-team sense until we can get him in better game shape.”
Note: Forward Kris Newbury signed a two-year extension with the Leafs Thursday. The 25-year-old rookie has two goals and two assists in 15 games this season.