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Sabres' margin for error nearly zero; Glum team needs to beat the Leafs

The Buffalo Sabres take the ice tonight in First Niagara Center needing to do what they couldn't Saturday -- beat the woebegone Toronto Maple Leafs.

But that's only one small piece of a nearly-broken puzzle that would get the Sabres into the playoffs.

For starters, there's almost no question the Sabres need to win all three of their remaining games if they want to pass either the Florida Panthers or the Washington Capitals.

Coach Lindy Ruff bluntly agreed with that notion Monday when he said, "I'd be stupid to think any other way."

The Sabres likely have to sweep and get some help. They got some Monday night when Washington gave up two goals in the final 63 seconds to Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos and lost a 4-2 decision to the Lightning. The Caps thus remain two points ahead of the Sabres while still holding the tiebreaker advantage.

The Sabres all said the right things Monday but the feeling in the locker room was decidedly downcast after practice.

"We kind of let it slip and we're kind of hoping other teams mess up and we have to take care of our business," said defenseman Mike Weber.

"We've put a lot of effort in but that first part of the season looms over us," said goaltender Ryan Miller. "The room for error was small and we made the error. Now we've got to make up for it."

The team had worked hard for over a month to climb from last place in the Eastern Conference into eighth and the driver's seat in the playoff race. Then in two days, the lead was gone thanks to back-to-back losses to Pittsburgh and Toronto.

"Disappointed. That would be kind of the mood," Ruff said.

The Sabres will continue to play tonight without injured defensemen Tyler Myers (foot) and Christian Ehrhoff (knee). Ruff said Ehrhoff would not play this week but could be available if the team somehow sneaks into the playoffs. The coach did not rule out Myers for Thursday's game in Philadelphia or Saturday's finale in Boston.

Without either of its power-play quarterbacks and its big-minutes men, the Buffalo defense had plenty of struggles in the two games. A huge mistake Saturday was Andrej Sekera's giveaway at the Toronto blue line that led to Joey Crabb's short-handed goal and put the Sabres behind, 1-0. The Sabres, in fact, never led in either game.

"I just made a bad mistake at a bad time in a game," Sekera said Monday. "It's behind me, I don't really focus on it. I have to make sure it doesn't happen the next game. It's hard at the end of the season when everybody is looking for points and guys are battling even harder."

Injuries were such a huge story earlier in the season but had faded away the last several weeks, so it was difficult to take two big ones resurfacing so late in the playoff hunt.

"It's part of hockey. You don't pick when you get injured," Sekera said. "It just happens."

"We've never used it as an excuse or crutch but losing two big bodies on your back end certainly doesn't help your situation," added fellow blue-liner Jordan Leopold.

After some fabulous play led the team back into contention, Miller struggled over the weekend by giving up at least three soft goals among the eight he was surrendered. Still, he went 10-3-2 in March with a 2.17 goals-against average and .930 save percentage and was named the NHL's Third Star of the Month on Monday.

"It's not something to sit and celebrate but I think I'd probably approach it the same way [even if the last two games weren't losses]," Miller said. "That month's over, we're into this last month of our season."

The Leafs snapped their franchise-record, 11-game home losing streak and the timing couldn't have been worse.

"They've been taking a lot of criticism at home and they have a certain amount of pride trying to keep their jobs next year," Miller said. "You don't expect them to lay down at home and I don't expect them to lay down [tonight]."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com