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Sabres are hot and Leafs are not

(March 6, 2006) Buffalo is a football town falling in love with a young Stanley Cup-contending hockey team.

Toronto is a hockey town 12 months of the year, and the NHL's Maple Leafs haven't rewarded their devoted fans for that love in a long time.


Bob Matthews has been a sports columnist for the Times-Union and Democrat and Chronicle and a regular "As the Sports World Turns" contributor to the Gannett News Service since 1978. He is the only person to be selected Press-Radio Club Sportswriter of the Year (five times) and Sportscaster of the Year, and was a pioneer inductee into the Frontier Field Walk of Fame. He is a graduate of Brighton High School (where he led the basketball team in scoring, but the opponents he guarded scored more) and Gettysburg (Pa.) College, and a proud Vietnam veteran.

The Sabres are hot on the ice and at the box office. They're a remarkably consistent 19-8-3 at home and 19-8-2 on the road, a sure sign of an honest and hard-working team. They rank third in the 30-team NHL on the power play and second in penalty killing. They're no fluke and will be a difficult test for any team in the playoffs.


The Maple Leafs would like to play any team in the playoffs.

The Sabres have drawn sellout crowds (18,690) to 11 of their last 14 home games to climb to 18th in the 30-team NHL in average home attendance (16,461, including the disappointing crowd of 8,552 in Rochester Oct. 26). They're third in average road attendance, partly because they've become one of the NHL's most exciting teams.


It is a much different hockey story in Toronto. At the start of Friday night's Maple Leafs game at HSBC Arena, loyal Toronto fans were shouting "Go Leafs Go, Go Leafs Go." But they were chanting "Fire Quinn, Fire Quinn" by the end of the 6-2 loss to the Sabres. Coach Pat Quinn is on thinner ice by the day as Toronto (27-28-5) is 4-14-2 since Jan. 6 and in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in his seven-year tenure.


Saturday night in Toronto, the Maple Leafs lost 4-2 to provincial rival Ottawa. The Senators lead the season series 7-0 and have outscored Toronto 40-14 in the process. Toronto's Eric Lindros, who signed a one-year, $1.55 million contract to realize his dream of playing for the Maple Leafs, suffered a season-ending wrist injury. The former superstar had 11 goals and 11 assists in 33 games.


Buffalo Bills fans who are frustrated because their team has yet to win a Super Bowl can take some minor consolation in the fact that the Maple Leafs won their 13th Stanley Cup on May 2, 1967, and haven't won one since.


The Sabres appear far more likely to win their first Stanley Cup before the Maple Leafs win their 14th or the Bills win a Super Bowl.


  • No complaints on the work ethic of the Syracuse Orange players in Sunday's 92-82 home loss to Villanova. They simply were beaten by a much better team. This year's Big East Tournament will be more significant than usual for the Orange. SU needs at least two wins to merit a trip to the NCAA Tournament. That's a tall order, but not impossible if it plays close to full potential. ... Is Duke's J.J. Redick shooting himself out of college basketball Player of the Year favoritism? In his last four games, he is 23-for-80 (.288), including 7-for-36 (.194) from 3-point range, and the Blue Devils are 2-2.


  • John Grant of the Rochester Knighthawks is the front-runner for this season's National Lacrosse League Most Valuable Player award, an honor he has yet to win in his brilliant career. The Knighthawks have a league-best 6-3 record with seven games remaining in the regular season and Grant leads the NLL with 36 goals and is third in scoring with 61 points in nine games. Toronto's Josh Sanderson (71 points) and Colin Doyle (69 points) are 1-2 in scoring but have played in two more games than Grant. ... Buffalo's John Tavares became the NLL's all-time leading scorer in Saturday night's 11-8 home loss to Minnesota. He has 1,093 career points, two more than the retired Gary Gait. ... The Philadelphia Wings cooled off Toronto with a 14-12 home win Saturday night. The Rock had won six straight since a 0-4 start. The Knighthawks play a home-and-home series vs. the Wings this weekend (home Friday and at Philadelphia Saturday).


  • Todd Pletcher has been chosen to train the unnamed 2-year-old colt who sold for a record $16 million at auction last week. The previous record price for an unraced colt was $13.1 million for Seattle Dancer in July 1985. That colt went on to race five times and won twice with career earnings of $150,000 before a modest career as a stallion. ... Brother Derek's win in Saturday's Santa Catalina Stakes makes him the early favorite to win the Kentucky Derby on May 6. His final prep race will be the Santa Anita Derby April 8.


  • Former New Zealand national player Aaran Lines is expected to report to the Rochester Rhinos this week. The 29-year-old midfielder scored six goals in 41 international matches for New Zealand and played his first season in America last year for the United Soccer League Division I Portland Timbers. ... There always is enormous pressure on World Cup referees and it will be interesting to see how they deal with FIFA's new edict to immediately eject players for "reckless elbows and tackles" in this summer's competition in Germany.


  • Minor league umpires are contemplating a strike (as in work stoppage, not as in ball and strike). International League umpire Andy Roberts, president of the 220-member Association of Minor League Umpires, says they haven't had a salary hike across the board in a decade. The typical annual salaries are $15,000 for a Triple-A umpire; $12,000 for Double-A; $10,000 for full-season Single-A; and $5,000 for short-season rookie ball. ... South Korea cleanup hitter Dong Joo-kim suffered a shoulder injury in Friday's 10-1 World Baseball Classic win over China and will be sidelined at least three months. If it were an Alex Rodriguez or an Albert Pujols, the WBC might have been fated for a one-time run.


  • If I were a high school basketball coach, I'd want a player like Fairport guard Corey McAdam running my team on the court. He was the best player I saw in Saturday's Section V marathon at Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial. ... Greece Athena's run to the Section V Class AA title and the saga of manager-turned-inspirational hero Jason McElwain has been a lot of fun, but I don't think the Trojans match up well against Class AAA champion Fairport in Wednesday night's state qualifier at Blue Cross Arena. My pick: Fairport 56, Greece Athena 47.


  • The Rochester Raiders of the Great Lakes Indoor Football League gained a pirate ship but lost a quarterback last week. The 34-foot long and 30-foot high ship will be home base for the Raider Treasures dance team during games at ESL Sports Centre. Former Buffalo State QB Mike Mikolaichik suffered a season-ending foot injury during practice, leaving Omar Baker (East High) and Matt Cottengim (East Stroudsburg) to battle for the starting job.