Trips to Buffalo have historically been trouble for the Leafs. There is no need to re-hash the team's sad record in the Aud and later Alphabet Arena (5-16-3 since it opened if you were curious) but needless to say it was not a destination of choice for the Leafs although it can be debated if Buffalo is a destination of choice for anyone at all. Even when the Leafs have had the superior team they have been hard-pressed to emerge victorious despite the large amounts of loyal bud fans that make the trip.
This year seemed like it would be a more dispiriting version of the past especially considering both team's respective places in the standings. This year, in two previous trips, the Leafs have gone 1-1 in two hard-fought games. Considering the injuries to the Leafs the string of good performances across the Peace Bridge seemed destined to end at two. However, the Leafs have a history of playing their best hockey when hobbled and with their backs against the wall and this game was no different.
The game was won on the backs of the indomitable Mats Sundin and his two resurgent wingers Alex Steen and Jeff O'Neill. The young Swedish protege struggled offensively this season while skating mostly with Michael Peca and Chad Kilger. He contributed a sterner defensive effort but after a summer in which JFJ refused to part with the sophomore in an attempt to attract Edmonton malcontent Chris Pronger fans expected numbers closer to the 18-27-45 that he put up in his rookie campaign. I was never a fan of the propoesd move and was glad to see JFJ sit on his hands on that one. I believed that Steen needed to play with more creative offensive players to allow his skill to emerge once again and, lo and behold, his numbers since joining the top line have supported that belief. He scored the winner last night to bring his stats to 7-4-11 and +3 in 8 games since being reunited with the captain.
His partner in renewal and on the wing, Jeff O'Neill, has also benefited from the increased ice-time that comes with riding shotgun for Mats. Last night's two goal effort marked the 13th game in the last 16 in which O'Neill had registered a point and brought his season totals to 15-18-33 and +5 in 45 GP after last season's 19-19-38 and -19 in 74 GP. The biggest changes is that he is second on the team in even strength goals after posting most of his points from the powerplay last year. He has the extra jump in his skating that was expected and has returned to playing the physical brand of hockey that brought him success in Carolina.
It's impossible to laud the sidekicks without mentioning the Captain. Mats Sundin is the straw that stirs the drink (to borrow a phrase) offensively for the Leafs. As much as Leaf-haters like to poke Leaf fans about Mats' place in history it is pretty clear that he is one of the rare players that makes his teammates much better. One need only look to Jonus Hoglund scoring 29 goals. He has put up 4-5-9 and a +2 since getting his new running mates while playing over 21 minutes per game including significant PK and PP time.
And I cannot forget Wade Belak. Encino Man took on Buffalo tough guy Andrew Peters after the Leafs scored the fourth goal and promptly beat him before ending the fight with a recreation of the Ragdoll Incident for good measure. The guys on AM640 pointed out the class with which Belak went about doing his job. Rather than taking the obvious opportunity to rub the victory in the face of a classless player he simply skated to the box, content that he had contributed to the Leafs victory. A short note on the debut of Travis Green, he was exactly what the Leafs expected. He killed penalties for 2:31, won 8 of 12 face-offs, and increased the Leafs 'grit'.
So the Leafs get a big win to start off their run of 9 games on the road out of the next 11. I will be at the game on Saturday against the Canucks so they better bring the same effort.