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Sabres get cozy in Toronto Schedule makers like back-to-back intensity

The NHL's general philosophy on the subject embraces pure disdain. It's not enough that divisional rivals meet eight times a season. The league wants to amp up hostilities even more.

The Buffalo Sabres will experience a post-lockout scheduling experiment when they visit the Toronto Maple Leafs twice in the next three days. They'll meet at 7 tonight and again at 7:30 Monday night in the Air Canada Centre.

"It's almost like a mini-playoff," said Mike Murphy, the NHL's vice president of hockey operations. "It's great for the fans in the sense they can hate a team twice as long. There's physical play, tough play, and there seems to be more urgency."

Every club has a similar back-to-back set that, with few exceptions, involves a divisional foe. The NHL borrowed the concept from baseball, where teams settle in for a series before moving on to the next town.

Murphy said the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Look for Buffalo to host at least one such series next season.

"I can't see us dropping it," Murphy said. "We'll probably increase it. Fans love them.

"You get a heated, spirited game. When one team wins, you know there's going to be some form of retribution desired from the other team the next time out. When you play six periods against a team, there's no hiding."

Murphy pointed to an otherwise shoulder-shrugging set between the Los Angles Kings and Anaheim Mighty Ducks earlier this season as an example of how the concept works.

"They were hot games," Murphy said. "It was incredible. Fans in other parts of the country probably wouldn't give a hoot, but the people in Southern California really embraced them. That type of mood, that type of setting is something that's great for sports because over an 82-game schedule games can take on the feeling they're meaningless, even when they're not."

The league asked the Sabres to stay in Toronto for the off day to increase intrigue. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said he appreciated the concept of a road-and-road series.

"It makes for an interesting three days," Ruff said. "You can have a lot of emotion spill over. Really, it's going to feel like the start of a playoff series, and not that often do you get that situation in our league."

The postseason outlook couldn't be more different for Buffalo and Toronto.

The Sabres are one measly point away from securing their first playoff berth in five years. The only way they won't clinch tonight is if they lose in regulation and the ninth-place Atlanta Thrashers win. Any other combination between those teams and the Sabres are in.

Buffalo is also four points away from reaching triple digits for only the sixth time in franchise history and the first time since 1983-84.

"That's a great goal," Ruff said. "If you want to point at any short-term goal, that's what we want to get to. A 100-point season says a lot. It's something we're going to take a lot of pride in."

The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, have been all but eliminated from the postseason. They're nine points behind the eighth-place Montreal Canadiens with 10 games to play and would need to pass the Thrashers and surging Florida Panthers as well.

"A lot of times these games are the tougher games," Ruff said. "They're going to be loose. You look at their lineup, they got younger guys playing more and playing for bigger opportunities. They just beat Philly. They're on three days rest, which is totally unheard of this month. So there's some concern."

The scuffling Sabres will be playing their fourth game in six nights and sixth game in nine nights. They have gone 1-6 with a shootout loss over their past eight games, but Ruff has liked some of what he's seen.

"The last three games we got three points," Ruff said. "Our concern is we want to continue playing well. The number of chances we're creating again and shots we're getting is the game we want to play."

Back-to-back games versus Toronto could be the tonic. Through their first five meetings, Buffalo is 4-1 with a shootout loss and has outscored Toronto, 25-12.

There's an outside chance winger Jochen Hecht could return tonight from his sprained right knee. Ruff reported Hecht endured a vigorous practice Thursday.

"Jochen is a lot closer to playing," Ruff said. "He had a real good day [Thursday] and went through all the combative stuff and didn't feel any pain. Just from talking to him, I would think he's itching to go either [today] or Monday. We'll make sure with the doctor, who will have the final say."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com1

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