Leafs' 'motivation is to win'

TORONTO -

Fans should be given hard hats to wear on Wednesday night to watch two teams doing messy foundation work.

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The last place Buffalo Sabres will visit a team hovering around the bottom five, both wracked by weak rosters, trade fallout, injuries and little motivation that their lot will improve in the final month of the NHL season.

At least Toronto has been marginally better in recent days, with a record 3-4-1 and could open up a potential 17-point lead with a win. That won’t make the Connor McDavid tank talkers happy, but the Leafs will still get a good draft pick, even if they do well on the following Western Canadian road trip where they face 29th-place Edmonton, among others.

“We’ve talked to (general manager) Dave Nonis and his staff and our mandate is to win as many games as we can,” assistant coach Steve Spott said during a conference call on Tuesday, a day off for the players. “They demand we play our best 20 and that’s our focus.

“We know Buffalo is having a challenging season (coming up on a goal differential of minus 100), but our motivation is to win.”

It’s expected centre Nazem Kadri will be back after a one-game benching for missing a team meeting. It would have been interesting had the Leafs hung onto Monday’s two-goal lead and beaten the Islanders, instead of losing late in overtime. Would interim head coach Peter Horachek dragged his feet on putting Kadri back in? But the Leafs still lost with Zach Sill recruited to play centre in Kadri’s place. Spott liked Sill’s effort and said winger Joakim Lindstrom is an option there, too, but predicted Kadri “will take a step up” in his game whenever he returns.

The Leafs sent Petter Granberg back to the Marlies on Tuesday, but with just five healthy defencemen after many trades and season-ending injuries to Roman Polak and Stephane Robidas, one and likely two farmhand blueliners will be called up to play the Sabres and go out West.

Spott says there is no shortage of Marlie candidates, but the AHL club is in the midst of a late playoff drive that has brought them within a point of qualifying at present. There is reluctance to take any prospect away from that valuable experience, even though it reduces chances the Leafs will finish their final 15 games on any kind of positive streak.

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