There's something so comforting about seeing the Buffalo Sabres on the schedule. There are so few teams that the Leafs can consistently, genuinely dominate, but luckily for us, one of them is right there in the Atlantic Division. Until the Leafs become a good team, Sabres games are our opportunity to imagine what it'd be like to be fans of a team that was the better half of any given matchup.
And even better, the Sabres are historically, mind-bogglingly bad this year, with only 3 wins and a 37.55% Corsi. Their own coach called them a "peewee team" after the third game of the season. The other day - and this is a true story - I successfully brought myself back from the brink of despair by thinking about how awful the Sabres are this year. Here, go to their team history page on War on Ice and poke around for a bit if you need cheering up. The graph at the top is a thing of true beauty.
Of course, the Leafs have been known to lose spectacularly to teams they should have beaten, but this year, they've been good about beating teams that are easy to kick around. That might not seem like anything worth celebrating, but it's a small sign of improvement nonetheless. This team still has major problems, but at least they probably won't get the stuffing kicked out of them by a team with a -253 shot differential. Probably.
Some things to look for in the game:
Line combinations. Carlyle was trying Nazem Kadri as Phil Kessel's center for a few games, but in the past couple games, he's gone back to his old familiar first line with Tyler Bozak at center. Given that Kadri's underlying numbers are better than Bozak's, and that mixing up the lines didn't end in disaster, you'd think that Carlyle would have kept them scrambled for a little longer. Will he go back and experiment with Kadri as Kessel's center? Or will he just keep putting random lines together to make it look like he's trying to fix this team without actually doing anything?
Starting speed. In some recent games, the Leafs have come out looking flat, struggling through the first five or ten minutes, and often surrendering the first goal. In some of those games (like last Sunday's against Ottawa) they've come back and pulled it together to win, but it's still an issue that leaves them with an unnecessary amount of catching up to do. Can the Leafs come out of the gate looking strong and well-put-together? Or will they flail around and spend too much time in their own zone?
Phil Kessel speeding through the neutral zone and totally embarrassing a couple of Sabres defensemen. Let's be real, there's no way the Sabres can keep up with Kessel. I hope he scores one of those goals where everyone responsible for covering him ends up falling over.
My predictions: The Leafs beat the Sabres 5-1, with Trevor Smith scoring his first goal this year. The Sabres have fewer than 15 shots on goal the entire game. Despite being injured and sitting in the press box, David Booth and Joffrey Lupul have better individual possession stats than any Sabre on the ice.