The New York Rangers will be on the other bench tonight in First Niagara Center. No sign of the Toronto Maple Leafs – or their lathered-up fans – anywhere in the vicinity. Too bad really.
The Sabres have been at their best this year against the Leafs. Their next task is to find a way to summon that emotion against everybody else.
“The atmosphere with Toronto is more like a playoff game. Everything gets built up, even in here,” Sabres defenseman Henrik Tallinder said Wednesday in the dressing room after practice. “When you come out there and it’s dead quiet and we’re not playing well as a team, it’s tough to get that little extra drive. When you have that audience out there, you build off that.”
Against the Leafs, the Sabres are 2-1 and have outscored Toronto, 8-7, in three games, all of which came since Ted Nolan took over as interim coach. In Nolan’s other five games, however, Buffalo is 0-4-1 and has been outscored, 15-4.
The Sabres and Leafs meet just twice more in the final 53 games of the season, both in the Air Canada Centre. So the Sabres had better find a way to get those same competitive juices flowing against other opponents.
“We want to have a consistent style to our game and it doesn’t matter if we play the Rangers or the Leafs or whoever it may be,” Nolan said. “We have to play a certain style all the time. You can’t manufacture feelings. It’s something you go out and do. Get involved with the game.”
“You’re playing in the NHL so it shouldn’t be a problem,” said captain Steve Ott. “If it is a problem, than that’s individual. You need to make sure you’re ready to go. That’s one thing about being a good pro: Bringing your consistency every night.”
Sabres winger Matt Moulson knows all about rivalry hatred from his days with the New York Islanders. Dueling fan bases are a staple of Islanders-Rangers games, especially at Nassau Coliseum. Moulson said it’s been a similar feeling here against the Leafs.
“For some reason, we’ve matched up pretty well with Toronto and obviously it’s an exciting game to play in,” he said. “But being ready for every game is important. Part of Ted’s MO is having his teams working hard and we want to be that kind of team. We’ve used these practices the last three days to solidify that, to make sure we’re really skating and moving.”
Nolan said Wednesday he has been pleased with the week the team has been having in its longest break of the season other than the Olympic period in February.
The Sabres went through a 50-minute power skating session before practice on Monday and went hard for about an hour Tuesday before tapering things down Wednesday.
They got three out of four points last weekend by splitting overtime decisions against Toronto and New Jersey and can earn points in three straight games for the first time this season tonight.
“It’s been good for us but I don’t know if it was actually a great thing to stop playing,” said a smiling Tallinder. “We’ve started to play pretty well against the Leafs, weren’t very good in the first period against New Jersey but got better.”
The Rangers have split their first 28 games after starting the season 3-7. They’re 11-7 since but have lost two of the last three as backup goaltender Cam Talbot split two decisions. Starter Henrik Lundqvist, who signed a seven-year contract extension worth $59.5 million Wednesday, is expected to be in goal tonight.
The Rangers handed the Sabres a 2-0 loss on Halloween in Madison Square Garden, a game that saw them outshoot Buffalo, 46-29.
It was a non-Toronto game and the Sabres basically slept through that one. That’s a trend that has to stop.
“We’re all in the same boat together but you have to be accountable to your teammates and make sure you’re ready to go,” Ott said. “If I’m a physical player, I better be physical every single night or if I’m an offensive player. Those consistencies in your game … have to be effective.”