Maple Leafs-Sabres Preview
With no playoff spots on tap after next week's season finale, the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs are racing to stay out of the Atlantic Division basement.
The Sabres can bury the last-place Maple Leafs further down that hole by extending a lengthy run of home dominance in this series Thursday night.
Buffalo (31-35-11) was officially eliminated from postseason contention earlier this week but is 16-13-7 since Jan. 10 and can avoid a fourth consecutive last-place finish - the last two in the Atlantic after the NHL realigned into four divisions in 2013-14.
Toronto (28-37-11) is a distant six points back and may find it difficult to make up any ground in Buffalo. The Maple Leafs have picked up just three points while losing their last six games there, and the Sabres own a 16-1-1 home mark in the series since Feb. 4, 2009, including a 10-game point streak.
The Sabres are riding a 3-0-1 stretch at First Niagara Center but opened the week with consecutive losses away from home, falling 3-2 at Detroit on Monday before Tuesday's 5-4 shootout loss at Pittsburgh.
Buffalo jumped ahead 3-0 against the Penguins, but goaltender Chad Johnson surrendered four second-period goals and two more in the shootout.
While Evander Kane sat out with an upper-body injury, points leader Ryan O'Reilly scored his first goal in 25 games. However, he failed on his sixth shootout attempt of the season and the Sabres dropped to 2-7 when the game reaches that level - their only two wins coming against the Maple Leafs.
Rookie Jack Eichel was denied by fellow rookie Matt Murray on a breakaway attempt in overtime and also missed his shootout try.
"You think about all the shootouts that we've lost, that's a major reason that we're not in the playoff picture," O'Reilly told the team's official website.
Johnson finished with 42 saves but suffered his second loss in as many nights. He helped Buffalo pick up two wins in the first three games of this series despite a .909 save percentage and 2.53 goals-against average.
The Sabres extended their point streak against the Maple Leafs to five games with shootout victories in October and early March before falling 4-1 in Toronto on March 19.
Kane has two goals and an assist in this series but is considered day to day.
Toronto was eliminated from the playoffs following its win over Buffalo earlier this month, but it was the first of three straight victories in which it scored 15 goals. After totaling one in back-to-back losses, the Maple Leafs broke out in Tuesday's 5-2 win at Florida to improve to 14-22-2 on the road.
Nazem Kadri scored twice in the previous 14 games, both against Anaheim last week, but he logged his third career hat trick.
"That's the good thing about playing in the NHL, you get a chance to redeem yourself pretty quick," he said. "We just found a way to win."
Toronto, one of the lowest scoring teams in the league, had been mired in a 3-for-32 slump on the power play but scored on three of four while adding its second shorthanded tally.
Jonathan Bernier made 32 saves to improve to 4-2 over his last six with a .952 save percentage and 1.53 GAA. He made 34 saves while suffering a tough-luck 2-1 shootout loss in Buffalo on Oct. 21 to move to 0-3-1 there in his career.