The banged-up Buffalo Sabres are searching for consistency as they try to stay in playoff position in a crowded Eastern Conference.
Playing just their second home game in nearly four weeks probably can’t hurt.
Coming off their longest road trip of the season, the Sabres will now play five of their next six at HSBC Arena, starting on Wednesday against the Northeast Division rival Toronto Maple Leafs.
Nine of Buffalo’s last 10 games have been on the road, including the last six in a row spanning the All-Star break. The club’s difficult January slate included visits to a trio of top contenders in Boston, Detroit and Calgary.
The Sabres went 4-5-0 in their last nine road games, but hung on to seventh place in the East - leading three teams by four or fewer points in the standings. A return home should help considering they’re 5-1-1 in their last seven at Buffalo.
But their recent stretch has been even more difficult with coach Lindy Ruff’s club missing four regular defensemen, as Jaroslav Spacek, Henrik Tallinder, Teppo Numminen and Andrej Sekera are injured. All except Spacek are on injured reserve.
It was no surprise the Sabres (26-20-5) were outshot 37-23 in Monday’s 3-2 loss at Anaheim, but Ruff was more upset with his offense, which has scored two goals in three consecutive games since a 10-2 win at Edmonton.
“I didn’t like our skill guys tonight; they didn’t get enough done for us. There wasn’t much coming from the top,” Ruff said Monday. “The guys down below were getting most of the work done.”
Thomas Vanek, Buffalo’s leading goal-scorer, saw his six-game point streak end, while Derek Roy, who is tied with Vanek for the team lead with 48 points, has no goals and one assist in his last three games.
Patrick Lalime stopped 34 shots for the Sabres in his first start since Jan. 14, but Ryan Miller could return to the crease Wednesday for the first time since a 28-save shutout of Phoenix on Saturday. Miller is 5-2-0 with a 1.84 goals-against average in his last seven starts against Toronto.
The Maple Leafs (19-23-9) seemed primed to win a third straight game for just the second time this season on Tuesday, but they blew a 3-1 lead, allowed the equalizer in the final minute of regulation and lost 4-3 to Florida on an overtime goal by former Toronto defenseman Bryan McCabe.
“We did enough things to have won the game,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “But unfortunately we didn’t.”
While they’ve scored 15 goals in the last three games, the Leafs continue to have problems defensively. They’ve allowed four or more goals in 13 of their past 18 games, going 5-10-3 over that span.
After stopping 27 of 31 shots against the Panthers, Vesa Toskala’s GAA stands at 3.34 - the second-worst in the league. McCabe’s game-winner slipped under his arm.
“I thought I was in a good position and ready to make a save,” Toskala said, “but it just went through.”
Toskala made 24 saves as the Leafs won 2-1 at HSBC Arena on Dec. 12, and he is 2-1-0 with a 1.01 GAA in three career trips to Buffalo. But backup Curtis Joseph was in net for the Sabres’ 4-1 win at Toronto on Jan. 1.
Buffalo is 17-8-1 against the Leafs since the start of the 2005-06 season.