Air Canada Centre; Toronto, ON
7:30 p.m. ET; SN (Ontario)
SBN Goo Goo Dolls Enjoyers: Die By The Blade
The Leafs, they are on fire. Their 8-1-1 record in their last ten games is topped only by a Washington Capitals team currently riding a nine-game winning streak. Dating back to December 13, the Leafs have collected at least a point in 12 of 14 games, amassing a 9-2-3 record. Not even the large number of back-to-backs have been able to stop the Leafs lately; their weekend sweep of consecutive games against the Rangers and Senators is their third in four back-to-backs dating back to December 22-23.
The only bad news? The Leafs have to play this game at home. That may sound weird, especially given how solid the team was at home earlier in the year, but the road edition of the Leafs has been red hot. Meanwhile, their only two regulation losses in the aforementioned stretch have coincidentally come at the Air Canada Centre. They have been 2-4-2 in home games since December.
Does this mean anything? Not at all. The Leafs' hot streak has just happened to coincide with playing a fairly road-heavy schedule, in large part because the World Juniors displaced them from the ACC for over two weeks. If anything, their dominance on the road should translate even better at home, where Mike Babcock can use last change to his advantage.
This seems like a good time to break the ACC "losing streak" and collect two points, because they're playing....
The Sabres are coming off a 4-1 win against the Dallas Stars. That win, however, just inched the Sabres up to ".500" with 43 points in 43 games. They may be just five points back of the Leafs for a playoff spot (albeit with two more games played), but they're only one point out of last in the Eastern Conference.
Weird, right? Weren't the Sabres supposed to be good by now? They jumped all the way from 54 points in 2014-15 to 81 in 2015-16. Wasn't this the year we were supposed to talk playoffs by now? What happened?
One easy answer is injuries. Buffalo lost Evander Kane and Jack Eichel earlier in the season, and they're still a team bereft of depth that can mitigate the damage of meaningful injury. That's an easy answer which explains, in part, their early struggles.
Nonetheless, that can't be the only explanation. Kane and Eichel returned from injury on November 9 and November 29, respectively. The Sabres, who went 5-5-2 with them out of the lineup, have gone 12-12-7 since Kane's return and only 10-8-4 with both Kane and Eichel in the lineup. Even more mystifying is they're having a mediocre year in spite of stellar goaltending; a healthy Robin Lehner sits at a .921 SV%, while backup Anders Nilsson has put up a more than capable .924 SV%.
The Sabres are still, however, a very bad possession team; their 47.1% score-adjusted CF ranks fifth-last in the NHL. Their PK is a league-worst 74%. One look at their personnel on the blueline makes it abundantly clear where the problem may reside.
More than, anything, however, my theory on this stalled Sabres team is that it simply shows the pitfall of a long, major tanking effort. We all recall that the Sabres went all-in on a massive tank effort after hitting rock bottom in 2013-14. They underwent a fire sale in 2014, and purposefully built a roster with the goal of being as bad as humanly possible for the 2014-15 season. I can't state enough how bad the Sabres were. Their possession numbers were so historically bad, many graphs were incapable of even recording them due to space restrictions. Their 54-point season in 2014-15 was the worst of any team since the implementation of the shootout in 2005-06.
The problem with that team being that bad is the current Sabres roster still contains many of these same players. In essence, the Sabres have simply added a handful of good players and a starting goaltender to what was an absolutely terrible team. That is certainly sufficient to get out of last place, as evidenced by the Sabres last season, but it may not be enough to take the next step. After all, if you spray Febreze where your dog poops on the carpet, it just smells like poop covered in Febreze. That's where the Sabres rebuild seems presently stationed, and why it may take longer than most people expected.
Something about the Sabres that I have started to question is Terry Pegula's ownership style. For those of you who don't know, I have the misfortune of having decided to be a Buffalo Bills fan at some point in my life. I had the embarrassment of watching a lame-duck GM explain in a major press conference how he had no say or involvement in the firing of head coach Rex Ryan, despite that ostensibly being his job. The extent to which the Pegula family involves themselves in the day-to-day operation of the Bills makes me wonder if the same rings true for the Sabres.
Sabres fans I've spoken to have said their perception is that the hiring of Dan Bylsma in 2015- and perhaps the failed courting of Babcock- had Pegula's fingerprints all over it. I don't know whether Sabres GM Tim Murray is on board with that mandate; he very well could be. But the Bills' coaching calamity made me rethink Mike Babcock's decision to coach the Leafs over the Sabres. We know that, despite being the coach, Babcock is given a stake in front-office decision-making. Could he have seen something in the way the Pegulas run (and potentially meddle with) their teams that made Toronto a more attractive option? We will never know, but it makes me wonder.
Anyway, I'll stop spouting rabid conspiracy theories. On to the line combos!
The Leafs' Monday practice showed absolutely no change in the lineup. Frank Corrado returns from the Marlies to claim his rightful spot in the press box. Frederik Andersen will start because this game isn't a back-to-back.
Speaking of back-to-backs, the Sabres won't be as well-rested, having played an MLK Day matinee against the Dallas Stars at home yesterday. Given that Lehner started, we're likely to see Anders Nilsson in net tonight.
Leafs (per Monday's practice)
Komarov - Kadri - Nylander
Hyman - Matthews - Brown
JVR - Bozak - Marner
Martin - Gauthier- Soshnikov
Rielly - Zaitsev
Gardiner - Carrick
Hunwick - Polak
Sabres (based on lines in Monday's game vs. DAL)
Tyler Ennis - Ryan O'Reilly - Kyle Okposo
Marcus Foligno - Jack Eichel - Sam Reinhart
Evander Kane - Zemgus Girgensons - Brian Gionta
Matt Moulson - Cal O'Reilly - William Carrier
Jake McCabe - Rasmus Ristolainen
Zach Bogosian - Cody Franson
Justin Falk - Taylor Fedun