Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul may be the best one-two scoring punch in the NHL, and that's key to the Toronto Maple Leafs' success and optimism.
Scoring tends to be at a premium for the Buffalo Sabres.
Lupul and Kessel will try to extend their scoring streaks as the surging Maple Leafs host the punchless Sabres in the opener of a home-and-home set Tuesday night.
Kessel has 24 goals and 48 points to rank second in the NHL in both categories, while Lupul isn't far behind with 19 goals and 47 points.
That success is a big reason Toronto (21-15-5) is in seventh place in the Eastern Conference as it tries to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons.
Kessel and Lupul have been part of the driving force behind the Maple Leafs' three-game winning streak, during which Toronto has outscored opponents 15-6.
Lupul has two goals and five assists in that span, while Kessel has five goals and four assists during an eight-game scoring streak during which Toronto has gone 5-2-1.
The two wingers had one goal and one assist each in Saturday's 4-3 victory over Detroit, as the Leafs reached the midway point of their schedule.
"This is where the stakes kind of go up," Lupul said. "This is the more fun part of the year. This is where you want to play your best hockey.
"We've put our team in the position where we can be a playoff team, but all we've done right now is set ourselves up."
Toronto has won four of five meetings with the Sabres (18-18-5), including all three at Air Canada Centre after a 3-2 victory Dec. 22.
Kessel has made his presence felt with three goals and three assists in the past five matchups, including a goal at home last month.
While Kessel and Lupul are pacing the surprising Maple Leafs, the Sabres enter the second half of the season trying to live up to lofty preseason expectations.
Buffalo was expected to be - at least - a contender in the Northeast Division, but the team is fourth and six points behind third-place Toronto.
Scoring is proving to be a major problem, as the Sabres rank towards the bottom of the conference with an average of 2.56 goals.
They've totaled 21 goals during a 2-6-2 stretch, but have been held to two or fewer in seven contests - all losses.
That trend continued with a 2-1 overtime loss to Winnipeg at home Saturday.
"It's tough to win a game with one goal," said goaltender Jhonas Enroth, who made 39 saves Saturday and is 0-4-2 with a 2.87 goals-against average in his last six games - five starts.
Ryan Miller figures to be back in net, but he's 2-5-0 with a 3.38 GAA in his last eight starts since making 29 saves in a 5-4 home win over Toronto on Dec. 16. He stopped 28 shots in the Dec. 22 loss to the Leafs and has a 3.45 GAA while losing four of five meetings with Toronto.
Tomas Vanek, Buffalo's leader with 19 goals, is expected to be available after he was limited to 13:31 of ice time Saturday. The left wing was struck in the midsection by a slap shot from teammate Tyler Myers in the first period, and played through the undisclosed injury.
"I don't think there's any issue of him (not) playing next week," coach Lindy Ruff said.
Vanek has one goal in five games, but has five goals and six assists in the past seven games versus Toronto.
These division rivals will conclude this home-and-home set in Buffalo on Friday.
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