BUFFALO, N.Y. — As the Toronto Maple Leafs close in on their first playoff berth in four years, the Buffalo Sabres seek to continue playing the spoiler role for their Atlantic Division rivals.
The Maple Leafs (36-24-15) and rookie sensation Auston Matthews are in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, entering a Monday night game at Buffalo tied with Tampa Bay for both third place in the Atlantic and the final Eastern Conference wild-card spot. Toronto is also just one point behind second-place Boston, with two games in hand, in the division standings.
“Obviously, we’re all watching the standings, but there’s nothing to say until we clinch a spot. We haven’t done that yet,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said, according to NHL.com, after a 5-4 win in Detroit on Saturday night, the Maple Leafs’ 10th victory in 13 games.
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Matthews, who is tied for fourth in the league with 38 goals, has his eye on a postseason berth.
“It would mean a lot,” he said. “That’s been our goal the whole season for everybody. It’s what we’ve been working toward the past month, trying to get better as a team, playing with good structure, playing as a team.”
Toronto will close out the regular season with five games in seven days, including two sets of back-to-backs, starting Monday night in Buffalo.
“This is the time of year when you have to give everything you’ve got and put yourself in the best possible position,” Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk told NHL.com. “We’re doing that, but we can’t stop yet. This can still get away from us.”
Things got away from the Maple Leafs in their last visit to Buffalo, a 5-2 loss eight days ago. There were several thousand Maple Leafs fans at KeyBank Center, a fact the Sabres used as motivation.
“The atmosphere in the building last game against the Leafs was a lot different than we’ve had all year,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said following Sunday’s 4-2 loss to the New York Islanders.
Buffalo (32-34-12) has lost two in a row and will miss the playoffs for the sixth straight season. The Sabres fell behind early and surrendered two third-period goals in their loss to the Islanders.
“We had chances, some good luck, some pressure, but we’ve got to capitalize a little bit more,” Sabres captain Brian Gionta said.
All-Star forward Kyle Okposo will miss his third straight game due to an illness.
The Sabres could be calling up forward Alex Nylander, the No. 8 pick in the 2016 draft, setting up a matchup with older brother William Nylander, who was named the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for March after setting a Leafs’ rookie record with a 12-game point streak.
The younger Nylander has played for the Sabres’ minor league affiliate in Rochester all season but was held out of Sunday’s game. Asked about Nylander’s potential call-up after Sunday’s game, Bylsma responded, “We’ll see.”
Frederik Andersen will start in goal for Toronto on Monday, Babcock said following Sunday’s optional skate in Buffalo. Backup Curtis McElhinney will start Tuesday’s game in Washington.