The Nazem Kadri line started this one off with a bang, as just 25 seconds in, Morgan Rielly pushed the puck through the neutral zone to Nikita Soshnikov, who sent a great backhand pass to Leo Komarov for the opening goal on a nice 2-on-1.
correction: Komarov goal, assist from Soshnikov. Sorry for mistake. pic.twitter.com/IbYY1oho78— Stephanie (@myregularface) March 8, 2016
Unfortunately, Soshnikov would get injured just 3 minutes later. He closed in on an open ice hit and instead, caught the heel of his opponent, spun, and fell backwards into the boards with his head taking the brunt of the impact. With Komarov translating to medical staff, Soshnikov was sent to the quiet room for examination.
Another scary moment came at the 8-minute mark of the game, with Zach Hyman in the box for interference (a bad penalty taken in the offensive zone), as two Sabres crashed into Leafs' netminder Garret Sparks. Sparks got up slowly, and the team trainer had already hopped the boards before he got up, but the goalie remained in the game. Evander Kane took a 2-minute penalty for goaltender interference.
On the ensuing shortened Leaf power play, Brian Gionta took down William Nylander and made it a 27-second 5-on-3 for the Leafs. Kadri fed Nylander with two great passes, but Nylander missed on both. With the remaining 5-on-4, Brad Boyes scored to make it 2-0 Leafs on a pass than banked off of Buffalo defenceman Jake McCabe's skate. New Leaf Connor Carrick picked up his second assist as a Maple Leaf on the play.
Leafs 2nd goal pic.twitter.com/9TQnhL8pbl— Stephanie (@myregularface) March 8, 2016
Brad Boyes. Corner pocket. #TMLtalkhttps://t.co/F1WghHFNV8— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) March 8, 2016
With just over 6 minutes remaining in the period, Leafs' fans breathed a sigh of relief as Soshnikov returned to the Leafs' bench.
Later in the period, it was the Leafs' turn to give up a 5-on-3 opportunity. Milan Michalek took the initial penalty for holding, and then Matt Hunwick took another for holding the stick. The Leafs killed Michalek's penalty and gave up a fantastic chance for the Sabres to tie it on the 5-on-4, but they survived the onslaught and maintained their 2-goal lead.
Hyman forced the Sabres to take a penalty with 1.8 seconds left in the period as he charged down the ice and forced former Leaf Carlo Colaiacovo to take a holding penalty. On the play, Sabres' goalie Chad Johnson had to make a great save not only on Hyman, but also on a rebound that came back towards the net off his own defender.
The Leafs began the second period with almost two full minutes of power play time, but were unable to get well set up, let alone extend their lead.
With a couple exceptions, the second period progressed quietly and quickly - Ray Ferraro noted on TSN that over 15 minutes of game time were played in just 20 minutes. One play worth checking out was Gionta's head butt pass:
The first and last non-goalie Vine, because the creativity here is just way too sick to pass up! https://t.co/pFw0gsoqIH— The Goalie Guild (@TheGoalieGuild) March 8, 2016
With 3:36, things got more interesting. The Sabres' Mark Pysyk came in on the rush and sent a shot in at Sparks that the goaltender initially got enough of to keep out of the net. But as the puck lay behind Sparks, he dropped his stick, reached back with his blocker, and tried to corral the puck with his hand, only to push the puck into the net. Oddly, Toronto mayor John Tory, who was sitting in the stands directly behind Sparks, appeared to have a brief exchange with the Leafs' goaltender after the play. No explanation was offered on the TSN broadcast. In any event, the Leafs' lead was cut in half.
Then, with 1:16 left in the second, Nylander created a 2-on-1 out of thin air, using his explosive speed to slip past two Sabres and then send a great saucer pass over to a flying Colin Greening, who beat Johnson with a great backhand, but unfortunately heard the crossbar chime out loudly to deny him.
With chances starting to come on fast and furious at both ends, Hyman finally cashed in on a Michael Grabner rebound to score his first NHL goal. Hyman had to swipe twice at the puck as he moved through the Buffalo crease unchecked, but was rewarded for his tenacity with just 18 second left in the period. Ben Smith also picked up an assist on the play - his first as a Maple Leaf.
Want to see what happiness looks like? Try Zach Hyman after his first NHL goal. pic.twitter.com/4o3wmKGsz2— Pension Plan Puppets (@PPPLeafs) March 8, 2016
It took until 12:32 remaining in the third for much action to transpire. With Kadri and Jack Eichel in their respective penalty boxes for off-setting minors, both players jumped back right into play in the Leafs' end. Eichel went darting towards the slot, and Kadri was slow to pick him up. Eichel only needed a fraction of a second to take a very short pass and snap home a shot past Sparks, who got beat cleanly.
Then, with just over 9 minutes remaining, the Sabres tied the game at 3, as Rielly coughed the puck up to Same Reinhart as he looked for a short pass to Kadri, and Reinhart fed a wide-open Evander Kane, who tapped home a shot that Sparks had no chance on. Hunwick had let Kane go thinking that Rielly had possession of the puck and that the team was breaking out, and was unable to get back to Kane in time.
With the Leafs having blown two separate 2-goal leads, this one was off to overtime.
Overtime had its usual series of wild play. Kadri fed Grabner on a 2-on-1 which Grabner shot directly at the goalie. Sparks came up big against Zach Bogosian. Then, Kadri was called on an utterly baffling tripping penalty that saw him lean his should into a rushing Eichel. It's possible - maybe - that there was some contact between the players' legs, but it really didn't look like much. Fortunately for the Leafs, Grabner, Marincin, and Hunwick were able to kill it off.
After a few extra chances, the game headed to a shootout.
Holland - Saved
Eichel - Saved
Kadri - Saved
Reinhart - Goal
Nylander - Missed
And that's all, folks.
Notes on individual players:
- Overall, I'd say Garret Sparks was fairly good in this one. The first goal was a tough one, the second beat him cleanly, but it's hard to blame him on that one, and the third he had no chance. We've seen much worse goaltending on the Leafs in recent years and pending what he does down the stretch I'm happy to give Sparks a real chance next year.
- William Nylander is looking a lot like the player I saw in the AHL and at the Leafs' rookie tournament. He's not a guy who controls the game, but he can be so, so dangerous in short bursts. You might not notice him for long stretches, though.
- Nazem Kadri mixed things up for Toronto all game, getting under the skin of several Sabres including Kane and Eichel. His line was easily the Leafs' most effective on the evening, and even though he was held off the scoresheet, he played reasonably well. Would have liked to see him pick up Eichel on that goal though, and while it was nice to see Kadri draw two penalties, he took 3 of his own.
- Milan Michalek played his first game as a Leaf. He was rather unremarkable aside from taking a penalty in the first period.
- Zach Hyman continues to look good in his stint with the big club. The Leafs may have found a decent 3rd liner with him. Glad to see him get his first NHL goal.
- Morgan Rielly had a bit of a tough night defensively. I sure hope the Leafs can fix some of the issues he faces in his own zone, because these days, his possession numbers and goals against numbers are abysmal.