ETOBICOKE, Ont. – Probably the last place the Buffalo Sabres need to be Monday night is the Air Canada Centre.
At one of the lowest points in their season, when they once again can't put the puck in the ocean if they were given a free shot from the beach, the Sabres will meet the Toronto Maple Leafs in a game where plenty of history can be made for the NHL's resurgent Original Six franchise.
The Leafs are currently on a franchise-record run of 13 straight wins at home. For a little bit of perspective there, you'll recall that the Sabres have won just 11 home games all year. All Toronto needs is a win over the Sabres and it will set franchise records for home wins (27) and overall wins (46) in a season.
The Leafs are 26-8-2 at home this year and haven't lost in the ACC since a 4-2 defeat to Colorado on Jan. 22. Coach Mike Babcock had some sobering words for the Sabres – or any visitor, for that matter – after practice Sunday in the suburban Mastercard Centre.
"It's important for teams to know when they're out for dinner in your town the night before that they're not getting any points tomorrow or that it's a real hard place," Babcock said. "When you're home and you don't win, it's hard for you. The crowd is tense, the whole thing. When you win, they're the wind in your sails. They help you out. It's important to get that feeling at home."
"We feel really good at home, especially toward this tail end of the year," said Leafs star Auston Matthews. "The crowd is into it. We're playing these big games and it feels like the playoff games every night. It's intense and I think everybody relishes it."
The Sabres took a CBA-mandated day off Sunday, so that's another day when they didn't score. They were drubbed by a combined 16-2 count in dropping all four of their games last week. And that's even though they outshot their opponents, 144-108, and outattempted them, 261-202. Buffalo remains last overall with just 58 points and its NHL-worst goal differential has now fallen to minus-74.
Monday's game is the Sabres' first visit of the season to the ACC and a major subplot will be that it marks the first head-to-head matchup of the season between respective stars and close friends Matthews and Jack Eichel.
The teams split their two meetings in KeyBank Center earlier this month, as both young studs sat out. Toronto is 6-1 since its 5-3 loss to the Sabres on March 5.
Matthews has a goal and an assist in two games since returning Thursday from a shoulder injury that kept him out of the lineup for a month. Meanwhile, Eichel has just one assist and a minus-8 rating in his five games back from a high ankle sprain that cost him 15 games.
"It's always fun to go against friends. Obviously he's a really talented player so it makes for a pretty a tough matchup," Matthews said. "I know him. We're both very competitive and don't want to lose to one another so it should be a good battle. I talked to him a little bit when were in Buffalo just catching up. I've known him for a while now. You want to see players like him healthy and it's good to see him back."
"Especially for American hockey, it's cool to see those two guys and how talented they are," said Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk. "Those guys have a good relationship off the ice, growing up with the USA Hockey stuff. It makes it fun for the fans to watch something like that but at the end of the day it's Toronto-Buffalo and you have to play team on team."
The Leafs have an incredibly balanced lineup with nine players over 40 points. Mitch Marner is the leader in points (64) and assists (44) while van Riemsdyk leads in goals with 34. Matthews and Nazem Kadri have 29 goals apiece while Matthews has 52 points in his 55 games. William Nylander is second on the team with 54 points.
Frederik Andersen has been a workhorse in goal, making 61 starts and collecting 35 wins while Curtis McElhinney has been perhaps the league's best backup, with 10 wins, a 2.09 goals-against average and .935 save percentage.
It's all added up to a 45-23-7 overall record for 97 points. With seven games left, the Leafs' franchise record of 103 points is certainly within reach and it's interesting to note that a longtime stalwart of the league has never won more than 45 games in a season. By comparison, the Sabres have exceeded 45 wins eight times in their history, which only began in 1970.
"You look at the history of the franchise that would be something that would be really cool," van Riemsdyk said. "Certainly something that you don't get a chance to do every single year."
"It would be a great accomplishment," added center Tyler Bozak. "For me personally being here for some tough times and being able to turn it around and be a part of this now, it's pretty cool."
Babcock walks by pictures of former great Leafs coaches Pat Burns and Pat Quinn every day outside his office so he knows what those records would mean. And he certainly knows what a deep Stanley Cup run – something that hasn't happened here since 1967 – would also mean. But the veteran coach is grounded too. Just keep winning and keep the eyes on the next day.
"One time I won something, won a Cup or a gold medal and I'm sitting by the fire at my lake place having a rum and my dad was having a scotch," Babcock said. "So I said, 'Things are going pretty good', kinda tooting my own horn and he said, 'When was that again?' In other words: What's coming? That's the same as our group. It's nice and it says they're getting confidence and expect to win. In reality, what we're trying to do is keep getting better."