Toronto Maple Leafs arrive in Washington looking for more of the same

A few of his Toronto Maple Leaf teammates could be heard letting out there frustrations nearby after a 7-4 loss to the Sabres, but Pony was preaching patience. Heading into games Friday in Washington and back at home Saturday against Boston, the Leafs winger feels the team is on the right track.

“We just have to play the next game the same way,” said Ponikarovsky. “We need to stay positive and play that same game in Washington.”

Indeed, there was plenty to like about Toronto’s game in Buffalo.

The NHL-best Sabres went up 4-2 with quick goals early in the second period and it looked like it would be another long night at HSBC Arena, where the Leafs are 5-18-3 since it opened in 1996.

Instead Toronto responded by tying the game in the third period and actually taking control of it. Only a misplayed puck by Leafs goalie Andrew Raycroft stalled that momentum as Buffalo took the lead because of his giveaway before adding two more goals into an empty net.

Asked afterwards if it was a tough loss, Raycroft responded: “Not really.”

“I mean, it’s always tough to lose and you don’t enjoy it,” he explained. “But I think at the same time it was the best team in the league and we were down 4-2 with five minutes to go in the second and we made a game of it.

“They’ve scored quick goals in the early periods and really blown teams out.”

With that positive thought in mind, the plucky Leafs boarded a charter for Washington ready for their next challenge.

The Capitals finished 14th in the Eastern Conference a year ago, but still managed to beat Toronto three out of the four times the teams faced one another. It’s something the Leafs are mindful of, particularly because the Caps (8-7-6) seem to be an even better team this season.

“There are no easy nights,” said Ponikarovsky. “There are no easy teams.”

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Which is why a Buffalo-like effort is what the Leafs are looking for every time they take to the ice.

Toronto has played the last six games without injured captain Mats Sundin (elbow) and has fared decently, running up a 3-2-1 record. They’ve done it by continuing to apply an aggressive forecheck and by doing a good job of controlling the puck for long stretches in the offensive zone.

“If we play like that we’re going to win more than we lose,” said Raycroft. “We’ve shown that we have some depth on our side and that a lot of guys can step up.”

Plus, they know their big captain will soon be back.

Sundin has ruled out playing in Washington but thinks he could return in time for the game on Saturday against the Bruins.

It could provide a big boost at just the right time. Divisional games are key as the Leafs saw first-hand on Wednesday – while they narrowly missed grabbing a win in Buffalo, every other team in the Northeast Division won its game and picked up two points in the standings.

The key for the 12-7-4 Maple Leafs is not to force things.

“We understand that we’ve got to win games, put points up,” coach Paul Maurice said. “But I’d rather see us play like that – play hard, but make mistakes.”

The coach had been frustrated earlier in the week after a sloppy win over the New York Islanders and was pleased with the effort in the loss to the Sabres.

He told his team as much afterwards and urged them to stick to the same gameplan while putting the sting of the loss behind them.

“You compete and then you move on,” said Maurice. “It was a good game. There was a lot of emotion on the bench. Lots of cursing and swearing and that’s usually an indication of the intensity level.”

It’s exactly what he’s looking for again this weekend.