Maple Leafs-Sabres Preview
By MIKE LIPKA
(AP) -- A four-game winning streak has boosted the Toronto Maple Leafs' hopes of finally reaching the playoffs for the first time since the NHL's season-long lockout in 2004-05.
A home-and-home sweep of sputtering Buffalo would hurt the Sabres' chances of joining them.
After shutting out the Sabres earlier this week, Toronto can open a 10-point advantage over its Northeast Division rival if it posts another regulation victory Friday night in Buffalo.
Seeking to bring the NHL postseason to Canada's largest city for the first time since 2004, the Maple Leafs (22-15-5) have jumped to seventh place in the Eastern Conference after sweeping a four-game homestand to begin 2012.
It's been nearly five years since they last won five in a row, although they'll have to end a three-game road skid to match that feat.
"It definitely feels like we're moving in the right direction," goalie Jonas Gustavsson said. "We're really good right now."
Gustavsson has been in net throughout the Leafs' win streak, posting a 1.51 goals-against average and two shutouts. He had 32 saves Tuesday in a 2-0 win over the Sabres, his first victory in five career starts versus Buffalo.
Toronto didn't get any points from All-Star wings Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul in that game, but Nikolai Kulemin finally managed to chip in. Kulemin, who scored 30 goals last season, tallied his fifth and assisted on Mikhail Grabovski's goal for his first multipoint performance in 31 contests.
He also displayed some rare physical play - which could carry over to Friday - in landing a jarring hit on Buffalo's Patrick Kaleta, who earlier had gotten a charging penalty for a hit on Grabovski.
While Sabres coach Lindy Ruff lamented what he feels is an officiating bias against Kaleta, there were nothing but good feelings between Kulemin and Grabovski.
"You know, he told me he did that for me because (Kaleta) hit me before," Grabovski said. "I'm very happy for that because a Russian (stuck up) for a Russian."
Buffalo (18-19-5) is likely more concerned about scoring goals than making hits. The Sabres have averaged 1.9 goals during a 2-7-2 stretch, slipping to 11th place in the East.
Things aren't about to get any easier for Ruff's club. After Friday's matchup, the Sabres take a seven-game road losing streak into a seven-game trip, which includes visits to West contenders Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis.
First, they're thinking about getting some revenge and making up some ground on the Leafs, who have beaten Buffalo in five of the past six meetings.
"We need to get one and it will make the boys in here feel good and hopefully we can string them on from there," forward Drew Stafford said. "We've got a great opportunity in the rematch."
Thomas Vanek hopes to help produce a different result after leaving Tuesday's game early with what was first announced as an upper-body injury, then later said to be an illness. While Vanek is expected to return, Derek Roy - the subject of recent trade rumors - also could be back after missing two games with a shoulder problem.
Team ice time leader Christian Ehrhoff remains out. The defenseman's absence probably isn't helping Ryan Miller, who had won 12 of 13 starts versus Toronto before posting a 3.22 GAA in losing five of his last six.
His 3.39 GAA at home is the league's worst among goalies to have started more than 10 home games.
Updated January 12, 2012