It was the battle of second fiddles tonight. William Nylander versus Sam Reinhart and not Auston Matthews versus Jack Eichel. Morgan Rielly versus Rasmus Ristolainen—no wait, those are the top defenders on each team, but you get the idea, Buffalo was missing some key players. Toronto had the same lineup that had beaten the Oilers.
Mike Babcock said today that these two teams weren’t rivals last year because they were both bad. Now they are both building something better. But these two teams were projected by most forecasters to be the bottom two in the Atlantic Division this year, so better is a relative term.
Prior to tonight’s game the separation between the second place team and the last place Leafs in the Atlantic was only four points, so it is too early for the standings to really tell us how much better anyone is.
Buffalo had won three straight games, Toronto had won one, and someone’s streak was getting broken.
The Leafs didn’t take much time to feel out the depleted Sabres team. The Sabres controlled the puck for most of the opening minutes, but then Tyler Bozak won a centre-ice faceoff, which was fine; maintained possession, which is what mattered; and made a good drive down the boards into the Sabres zone. Mitch Marner made the play with the puck, which went back to Bozak, and then he was there with the finish on the goal. One guy, making plays and finishing, what a concept.
The Sabres tried to counterpunch but it did not work well at first. The Leafs just kept taking the puck and going the other way. Nikita Zaitsev had a good shot on a zone entry; William Nylander snatched a puck, turned and whirled in with it; Auston Matthews had a chance off a long stretch pass while the Sabres were changing.
As is inevitable, the Sabres got some zone time when they trapped Matthews’ line for a bit, but all of his line were tenacious on the puck and turned it back around.
While the Sabres tilted the ice in the second half of the period and made Frederik Andersen work, the Leafs had chances.
Marner slipped in with a move so beautiful to split the defence, I forgave him the drop pass that followed it.
It was Leafs speed, and Leafs skill, and okay, if I listed every good play they made, this would be a Russian novel or a Fulemin post, so suffice it to say everyone was pouncing on pucks, ripping them right off Sabres’ sticks, and really, I think Bozak got a couple of wallets. Yes. Bozak.
The Leafs did show what happens when you start acting like you’re playing a practice scrimmage on Babcock’s day off. Nylander lost the puck four times in one attempt through the neutral zone. Of course, that means he got it back four times, but it was all a little sloppy.
Andersen got to work some more and made an amazing set of saves on Matt Moulson, but it was his stop on Zemgus Girgensons that was the play of the period, and the game, maybe the year.
At the end of the first it was 1-0 Leafs, but 21-11 for the Sabres in Corsi differential (five-on-five), and more worrying, 9-2 in Scoring Chances.
Mitch Marner with the beautiful goal and several other plays in the period.
Frederik Andersen with the saves.
Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov started the Leafs push in the first part of the second with a great chance that didn’t quite go in. Nylander had a look on the next shift.
James van Riemsdyk got the puck behind the Sabres net and Marner just does not believe he can’t score. 2-0 Leafs.
Time for a chart.
Notice the second period, where at first it’s all Leafs, as the line goes down, down, and then it’s all Sabres for long enough for them to capitalize off of chaos in the neutral zone and a bad change to get in the zone, and then Martin Marincin gets handcuffed trying to play the puck and it was just too easy for Marcus Foligno. 2-1 Leafs.
A couple of overly aggressive defensive plays gave the Sabres two back-to-back power plays that ate up most of the rest of the period. A decently aggressive penalty kill and some good work by Andersen made the power plays moot.
The Leafs finished the period off well enough, perhaps having relearned a little structure in all the PK time.
At the end of two, the score was 2-1 for Marner, with the Sabres still ahead in Corsi with 37-31, which looks okay until you see that the scoring chances and high-danger chances favoured the Sabres by a margin of 2-1. All of that looks a little better with score effects factored in.
Andersen was good enough. He was under a lot of pressure, with a lot of chaotic play in front of him, and some of that was his own doing, but he had what he needed to have.
I wouldn’t try to score on him.
Marcus Foligno had a good period with a goal and several other chances.
Connor Carrick and Martin Marincin and not in a good way. They both struggled to handle the puck, handle their opponents, and Carrick was responsible for one power play for the Sabres, and got a freebie he should have been called on later on.
The third period was a chippy and choppy twenty minutes without a power play or any flow to the game for most of the time. The Leafs were chopping hard at sticks to disrupt the play and they held the Sabres to no more than what score effects gave them in shots. No less either.
Halfway through the period, they got their speed game back a little, and Matthews finally looked effective for more than brief moments. Which way the causal flow runs there is anyone’s guess, and the right answer might be neither.
Robin Lehner had a very good game the Sabres, but while the Leafs gave up a lot of opportunities, Andersen was better, while the Sabres didn’t have their best scores out there.
The Corsi ended up 60-44 for the Sabres, but that turns into 53-49 when you use the Score and Venue Adjusted numbers. The scoring chances still overly favoured the Sabres, however.
Only the fourth line was really caved in on the Leafs, and that was Cody Franson and Jake McCabe absolutely owning them.
Despite the relatively even Corsi, the Leafs played this game in a way that required Andersen to put in the best game of his short Leafs career. He wasn’t perfect, but he was the best player on the ice. He made 42 saves to Lehner’s 27, and without him, the Leafs malfunctioning breakout and poor play in the neutral zone would have sunk them. But when they had the offensive zone, they were often magical.
And all of that sounds like the Avalanche under Patrick Roy, albeit without the offensive issues that also plagued his team. It is not a formula that works, but it also does not always fail. However, replace that Sabres lineup with the Penguins, the Capitals, the Lightning and it may never work.
There is not a huge gap in execution between what the Leafs are doing here and what they can and have done when they drive the play better. The key is, of course, Matthews and Nylander. They were, for half the game, as bad as Bozak’s line were vs the Oilers two nights ago.
When Matthews’ line get over this bump, get their passes connecting and their feet moving, when they figure it all out and remember how clean zone exits work, they will be as electric as Mitch Marner was in this game.
But Marner was clearly the best skater in the game. If Roman Polak had scored both goals, I’d still say that. tonight was all Marner and Freddie, picking the team up and carrying them on their mismatched shoulders to a regulation win. (And six points in their last five games for the first time this year.)
Nikita Zaitsev had an excellent game. He is so smooth when it all flows for him, and offensively he was dangerous a few times.
Ryan O’Reilly was easily the best player for the Sabres and was a very tough guy to play against.
Bozak and van Riemsdyk rode along with Marner’s brilliance sometimes, but they were also on the ball in the neutral zone, and drove a lot of offense with good play.
Natural Stat Trick for the stats and charts and just generally being a breeze to use.