It’s been way too long, but the fans in KeyBank Center will finally be part of a late-season playoff push. Alas, it will only be the fans wearing Toronto jerseys.
Oh, the indignity.
The Sabres will probably feel like the road team Saturday night when the surging Maple Leafs invade downtown. Toronto fans have tried to impose their will when the Leafs were bad. Now that the team is firmly in a playoff spot …
“I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of fans coming down the QEW to watch this game,” Sabres left wing Marcus Foligno said Friday. “They’re pretty excited to have playoff hockey in their reach and have it back. We can expect a lot of white and blue jerseys, but it makes for a fun atmosphere, so we don’t care. We’ll try to feed off it.”
There were other plausible scenarios when the schedule came out. Both teams could be fighting for a playoff spot. The Sabres could be ahead. Neither team could be any good.
“They’re fighting for a playoff spot, and we’re not where we want to be,” said Buffalo right wing Kyle Okposo, who is expected to return to the lineup after missing 10 games with a rib injury. “We’re going to have to take this and try and learn from it. These guys are fighting for every inch. They’re going to come out and play hard. We have to try and match their intensity.
“We have to go win a hockey game, and that’s the way we have to look at it. I’m really looking forward to the challenge that Toronto is going to present.”
It will be a challenge. The Leafs have won three straight to climb into third place in the Atlantic Division. They’ve got 85 points, six back of first-place Montreal and three ahead of fourth-place Boston with one fewer game played than both.
“Every guy in this room believed we could win and get into the playoffs and do some damage,” center Tyler Bozak said in Toronto. “There’s certainly a lot of work to do to get there, but we like where we’re at.”
The Leafs are 2-1 against the Sabres this season, including a 2-1 victory Nov. 3 in Buffalo. The Sabres entered the game 17-1-1 against the Leafs at home.
Rookies Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander didn’t care about that.
"We’ve got a ton of new faces and a new mindset,” Bozak said. “We’ve kind of put all that stuff from the past behind and turned a new page here. It’s nice to be part of.”
The Leafs’ turnaround was still in its nascent stage during their first visit. The Toronto fans barely made their presence known during the Thursday night game.
For this "Hockey Night in Canada" weekend matchup, longtime Sabres are prepared for the worst – or the best – that Leafs fans can bring.
“We love playing Toronto and Montreal, teams that have a strong fan base that come in and scream and yell and create a lot of energy,” left wing Tyler Ennis said. “It gets our fans going. It’s a nice competition, and those are the best games.”
This game could have been so much better if Buffalo hadn’t gone 2-8-2 from Feb. 19 through March 16.
“We thought we'd be much closer and fighting for that last spot right now,” forward Ryan O’Reilly said. “With Toronto, there's always hype around them. They're one of the most talked-about teams in hockey. It's a rivalry.
“I want to beat them. I don't want to see them in the playoffs.”
Oh, they’ll be there. Their fans will make that clear Saturday night.
“That would be ideal, both of us fighting for a playoff spot,” Foligno said. “Unfortunately, it isn’t for us, but we have a chance to play spoilers.
"It’s an arena that Toronto’s had a tough time to come in here in the past, and we’ve got to make sure it’s the same thing.”