Exactly 41 games through the regular season, the exact midway-point in their schedule, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are within a playoff spot sitting in a tightly-jammed seventh place in the Eastern Conference.
The Leafs will look to start their second-half on the same kind of lightning they’ve used so far against the ever-struggling Buffalo Sabres at the Air Canada Centre tonight, the first of a home-and-home between the Northeast rivals in four nights.
The Leafs (21-15-5) are trying to continue their turbulent climb in the standings following three straight wins, most recently a wild win against the Red Wings on Saturday. The Leafs were in 10th place back on Jan. 1 following a loss against in the Jets on New Year’s Eve but have since jump frogged two teams in moving to seventh place.
The red-hot Jonas Gustavsson will get the start for the Leafs between the brass pipes. The Swedish “Monster” has started those last three games to a goals-against-average of 2.00 which includes a shutout against the Jets.
Meanwhile, the Sabres (18-18-5) will look to end a six-game losing streak on the road and win for just their third time in 11 games. In a reversal of fortunes, the Sabres have fallen from seventh to eleventh in just less than month. Jason Pominville leads the way for the Sabres with 43 points, good for tenth in the league, while Thomas Vanek sits with 4o and a team-leading 19 goals. Goaltender Ryan Miller enters with a save percentage of .857% in his last four starts to the tune of a 1-3-0 record in a tough season for the Team USA starter.
Early Hart-nominee Phil Kessel has scored a team-leading 48 points and is only one back of the NHL’s scoring leader Claude Giroux. Line mate Joffrey Lupul isn’t far behind, surging his way to a surprising fifth place with 45 points following a second-star of the week honor in which he tallied three goals and two assists.
The season series is tied one apiece, with the Leafs winning most recently on Dec. 22.
In the midst of a nine-out-of-ten-game home stand and a two-day break, the Leafs need to salvage these kinds of games if they want to stay afloat in hotly contested Conference. Potentially, they could sit only four points away from the division-leading Bruins tomorrow morning.