Sabres in Leafs' rear-view mirror
Toronto Maple Leafs practice in preparation for their their trip Friday night against their QEW rivals - the Buffalo Sabres. (JACK BOLAND/QMI Agency)
Truth be told, the Buffalo Sabres have much more to be concerned about on Friday night than the return of old whipping boy Tim Connolly.
Remember the grand talk from across the Peace Bridge this off-season about the new ownership and how it was going to spark a renewed chase for the Stanley Cup?
Remember the summer signing of Ville Leino essentially, it seemed, to replace Connolly?
Well lately, the Sabres have gone all Bills on the good sports fans of Western New York.
They've already lost nine games at home - which makes the Leafs' record at the Air Canada Centre look not so bleak - and are battling through a 3-5-3 stretch overall.
And Leino is now victim of Connolly's supposedly biggest crime in Buffalo - the injury bug - sidelined for several weeks with what the team is calling a lower-body injury.
There's always a buzz at the First Niagara Center (or whatever they're calling the Sabres' barn this week) when the Leafs are the guests on a Friday night. Factor in the return of Connolly and dare we say it, the atmosphere figures to be almost playoff-like this time around. To add some punch to the first of six meetings between the two, the Sabres find themselves two points behind the Leafs in the Northeastern Division standings and it is no stretch to suggest the season series between the two could have serious playoff implications.
"If you look at the standings right now, I'd anticipate Buffalo being a team that we're going to be neck-and-neck with all year," Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul said following Thursday's practice at the Air Canada Centre. "And we've got to play them six times. It's a fun place to play with the building basically half and half between (Leafs fans and Sabres fans), a great atmosphere."
After four consecutive losses to the Boston Bruins, the Leafs are certainly hoping another division opponent won't be so dominant and that they will be able to build off a rare win in Buffalo late last season. Both teams have played 30 games but the Leafs have a two-point edge (35 points to 33).
"We're high in the standings, we've got some confidence, we're feeling good about ourselves, we've got to be prepared tomorrow," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. "It's a rivalry. We've got to keep them behind us (in the standings.) That's the goal with this team.
"The big hurdle is getting by (Ryan Miller) in goal. We found a way to beat him last year, but we could say the same thing about the Bruins last year."
With a busy stretch of three games in four nights, Wilson said he was undecided about who would be in the Leafs net to face the Sabres though he was leaning towards James Reimer, who was solid in the 2-1 overtime win over Carolina on Tuesday. Following Friday's game, the Leafs return home to face the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday followed by the Los Angeles Kings on Monday. You can expect Reimer to play in two of those.
As for Connolly, don't buy the stuff that it's just another game for him, or for his teammates. Players aren't about to talk about it publicly pre-game, but you can bet there will be some added incentive in the Leafs' room Friday.
While fans and media see a mostly guarded Connolly, Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf says his teammates see a different one.
"I've got nothing but real good things to say about Timmy Connolly," Phaneuf said. "He's a guy who works extremely hard behind the scenes that not a lot of guys see. We see it as players because we're behind those doors.
"A lot of stuff he does, he's a true professional and a guy who works extremely hard, not only in practice, but off the ice."
For eight seasons, he spent his time on and off the ice in Buffalo, a fact that won't be lost on Connolly's teammates Friday night.
"It's going to be an emotional day for him, he's going to have to deal with a lot of distractions and memories," Lupul said. "You want to win for him, but you don't want to make too big a deal of it, either."