TORONTO — The Buffalo Sabres will be facing a confident, young Toronto Maple Leafs team when they visit the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night.
The Maple Leafs (20-13-8) are coming off back-to-back road wins Friday and Saturday against the New York Rangers and the Ottawa Senators. They are 8-1-1 in their past 10 games and have 48 points in 41 games.
“I think you want to get caught up in the energy of doing well and having fun and knowing you’re getting better, and I think you want to be professional with your approach,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said after practice on Monday. “When things are going good, you better work even harder because, in life, they have a tendency to turn. You’ve got to just keep grinding.”
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The Sabres (17-17-9) will go into the game with momentum built from a 4-1 victory over the Dallas Stars Monday afternoon at KeyBank Center led by two goals by Jack Eichel, who has scored 10 times in 22 games.
Tyler Ennis scored 19 seconds into the first period in his first game since undergoing groin surgery on Nov. 10, and Buffalo, which lost its previous two games, was on the way to improving its record to 4-2-1 in January.
“It’s great to have (Ennis) back,” said Eichel, whose second goal was into an empty net. “He’s such a skilled player. Obviously, he makes everyone around him better. It’s awesome to see him back healthy. He obviously adds a new dynamic to our team that’s good for us.”
“You hope that’s just another arrow in the quiver to have in your team’s offense,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “And it’s one we haven’t had most of this year.”
Ennis, who has had three 20-goal seasons, missed 30 games since Nov. 7.
“I got a goal early but I was still pretty rusty,” Ennis said. “I can play a lot better. There’s still an extra step, a little more pop in my skating.”
The Maple Leafs will likely go with No. 1 goaltender Frederik Andersen against Buffalo after Curtis McElhinney made 35 saves in his Toronto debut in the 4-2 win at Ottawa.
Th 33-year-old was acquired on waivers from Columbus last Tuesday.
With optimism running high in Toronto, Babcock tried to keep things in perspective on Monday.
“Let’s not get carried away here,” Babcock said. “I mean, Ottawa out-chanced us, we won the game. We’ve got a lot of work to do here. We’re getting a better understanding of what’s expected of them, understanding that we’re good enough to win every night if you play right. Those things are positive.
“I guess our biggest improvement is understanding and expectations. We know where we’re supposed to stand, and we expect to have success. In saying that, it is Game 41. I’ve been in the league a long time. Lots of things can go good and lots of things can go bad. I think it’s just real important that we focus on our five-game segment and keep trying to win.”
The game against the Sabres is the first of four in a row at home for the Maple Leafs.
“That’s going to be crucial for us,” Toronto center Nazem Kadri said Monday. “We had been good all year at home (10-7-2). We have to understand that games at home mean as much as games on the road. This will be nice, I feel like we’ve been on the road for a while the past couple of months.”
Bylsma reunited Eichel and roommate Sam Reinhart on a line for the game Monday, with Marcus Foligno joining them on the left wing.
Reinhart, who was moved from center to right wing, had one assist.
“It’s nice to be back playing with him,” Eichel said. “We’re two people who want to be out there together. We know that if we get each other the puck and get open it’s going to come back.”
Eichel had a career-high 10 shots on goal against Dallas and won 13 faceoffs.
The Sabres’ next challenge will be in Toronto. “It’s a good test for us,” Eichel said. “Toronto’s obviously been really hot lately, so we’ve just got to go up there and play similar to the way we did (Monday) and we should be successful.”
The Maple Leafs won the first game between the teams, 2-1, on Nov. 3 in Buffalo.