Pre-Game: Leafs v. Slugs at HSBC

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    PhotobucketFirst of six meetings between Leafs & Sabres this season

    The Maple Leafs renew acquaintances with their northeast rival Buffalo Sabres at the HBSC tonight, a building home to both some chilling and some rosy Leaf memories, from the Bryan McCabe own goal and other monumental Leaf collapses to some pretty all-around satisfying Ws.

    The spirited atmosphere is always a certainty in these tilts as the legion of Blue and White fans that travel up the QEW clash with a home crowd fervent in its own right.

    The dynamics of the rivalry have certainly been altered over the past year and a half. This rivalry was at its peak when the Sabres were among East’s elite and the Leafs, typically blundering in mediocrity, would stumble into a hostile atmosphere and try to upset an incredibly pacey and skilled Sabres team. Some of the Slugs’ panache has been lost alongside the departures of Daniel Briere, Chris Drury and Brian Campbell, and the Leafs are probably now a slightly-below-mediocre side.

    Nonetheless the Sabres still have great team speed and can be a very threatening attacking unit when on their game. After starting the year off scoring at a 3.0 goals per game clip (and posting 9-3-3 overall record), the Sabres went through an uncharacteristic dry offensive spell during the month of November in which they averaged a mere 1.9 GPG rate. In that ten game stretch, the Sabres went 2-8 and were collectively outscored by their opponents 37-19. The Maple Leafs may have crossed paths with them at the wrong time, however, as the Sabres appear to be rounding back into their early season form after winning three straight since December 4th and posting four goals a game in the process.

    The Sabres will be an intriguing challenge for the fledgling Maple Leafs. One area in which the Leafs can definitely described as improved this season is in the overall team speed department. We’ve certainly seen the difference when the Leafs line-up with the Senators, who used to skate circles around this club, and it’ll be interesting to see if the Leafs can similarly match the Sabres stride for stride.

    The Leafs will be encouraged by the return of Mike Van Ryn to the blue-line, arguably the Leafs’ best defender prior to being jumped by Tom Kostopoulos. No word yet on who is scratched in his place, but apparently it’s not Jamie Sifers. I’d guess that Ian White will move back up front and one of Andre Deveaux or Ryan Hollweg will take a seat. We’ll have to see if Andrew Peters plays tonight (he’s been out with an abdominal injury since Dec. 1), if so Ron Wilson should account for the fact that he’ll be looking for a dance partner tonight, in which case I’d suggest “pressboxing” Hollweg and playing Deveaux.

    Tomas Vanek is scoring at a sublime pace at the moment and currently sits at 22 goals through 26 games. The Leafs unfortunately do not have Luke Schenn to stalk him all night, so it’ll likely be a by-committee approach towards stymieing him. Jason Blake is the current hot hand in the Leafs dressing room with 6 points in his last 3 games.

    An interesting stat to note – The Maple Leafs are 3-6-0 in games proceeding a victory. The Sabres are 8-2-3 in that category.

    I’ll update when there’s official word on tonight’s line-ups.

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