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Leafs vs. Sabres Recap: Rielly Down, Leafs Win Anyway

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The Leafs win a costly 4-3 victory against the Sabres.

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Toronto Maple Leafs John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Leafs played host tonight to the Buffalo Sabres, their fellow Atlantic-division rebuilder. The Sabres have a number of exciting forward pieces and an abjectly bad defence, headed by Rasmus Ristolainen, possibly the most overrated defenceman this side of Kris Russell. You would expect a sloppy affair with some scoring. You would be right.

First Period

The game had a tense moment in the opening minute as Connor Carrick made a giveaway to Jack Eichel which led to a 2-on-1. Carrick was the “1”; he extricated himself by suicide-rushing the puck and knocking it away from Eichel in a high-risk desperation play.

There was a lot of sloppy back-and-forth early, though the Leafs seemed to get closer to the net. Jake Gardiner did some Jake Gardiner stuff to dance around the o-zone, and Nikita Soshnikov had another of his impressive but all-too-often-unrewarded rushes out from the side boards.

Things took a grim turn when Morgan Rielly fell awkwardly into the boards underneath William Carrier. It wasn’t immediately clear what was hurt, but it seems to have been his right leg. Rielly returned after a couple of minutes, but subsequently left again, this time for the evening.

On a subsequent play, Andersen decided to play the puck, and made an idiotic giveaway to Kyle Okposo. The Leafs challenged the goal on the grounds that William Carrier (him again!) obstructed Andersen from making the save, but the video review team was unpersuaded. 1-0 Sabres, with the Leafs down their timeout from the failed challenge.

Sam Reinhart and friends had a quality shift against the Matthews line, which is just a pretext for me to tell you that Sam Reinhart is better than you might realize due to him being in Jack Eichel’s shadow. Just sayin’.

Between the Rielly injury and the goal against, the Leafs seemed to be shell-shocked for the most part. Sparkplug Zach Hyman had the best Leaf chance of the period as he streaked in on a partial break and hit the goal post, but beyond that the Sabres had the better of the play.

Jake Gardiner hit Connor Brown with a pass Brown couldn’t corral, and a giveaway resulted. On the subsequent Sabres rush, Brian Gionta made a nice drop pass to Evander Kane. Kane fired a good slapshot to put Buffalo up 2-0 in the final minute of the first. It wasn’t awful, but it was the sort of goal Freddie doesn’t allow when he’s on. Womp womp.

This was a lousy period. The Leafs weren’t really bad enough that they deserved to be down two—they had the edge in adjusted Corsi—but they weren’t especially great either. Obviously the injury to Rielly was the most concerning issue. Andersen had a period to forget. Turn the page, boys.

Second Period

The Leafs started the period much better than the first, as Kadri and Komarov rushed in hot. Komarov went to the net front while Kadri fired the puck towards him, and Komarov banked the puck in. 2-1!

Mitch Marner was called for an iffy tripping penalty and the Sabres got their cycle on in style, but didn’t score. Some good penalty-killing work from Roman Polak helped.

The Leafs seemed to be energized after the goal, and got more chances on Robin Lehner as the period continued. Lehner made some impressive saves, but the goal that eventually beat him was a soft sharp-angle shot from Matt Martin, of all people. 2-2!

The next goal wasn’t long in coming. Zach Hyman, according to plan , threw it out front to Matthews, who reminded us all that he has a just ridiculous goddamn shot and sniped a top-corner goal. 3-2 Leafs!

Lehner was pulled after this goal, and threw an amusing hissy fit on the bench.

Anders Nilsson came in to take over. The rest of the period zoomed by without many whistles and with a lot of action. The Leafs didn’t exactly play banner defence, and Freddie had to make a couple of key saves, but the Leafs gave as good as they got and kept the heat on.

This period, needless to say, was a lot more fun to watch than the last. The Leafs took it to the Sabres’ defence and generated a ton of chances. The Matthews line in particular swarmed, getting the better of the Eichel line. But the Leafs’ forwards as a whole turned in a great period.

Third Period

The Leafs kept the heat on to start the third, with rushes from the likes of Frederik Gauthier, whom the commentary quite aptly described as climbing over the defence. Nikita Zaitsev went all one-man-army driving into the Sabres’ zone, though he didn’t get the shot past Nilsson at the end of it. Still, the man sure can skate.

The Sabres did start to get a few more chances, and Freddie made several decent saves, including one on Justin Falk (not that one, the other one.)

The Matthews line had multiple rushes where they generated high-quality chances. The best of them was Brown, who recovered a puck that seemed to be leaving the zone, sidestepped a defender and rifled a quick shot.

Speaking of Connor Brown, Zach Bogosian held him and slammed him into the ice, taking a dumb penalty doing so. On the subsequent powerplay, James van Riemsdyk did this.

Anders Nilsson did not appear to know what to do at all there. 4-2 Leafs.

It looked like the game might be just about done, but the Sabres refused to play dead. On a fairly quiet-looking play, Zegmus Girgensons threw the puck from the corner into the slot at just above waist level. William Carrier proceeded to score a damn fine baseball goal to bring the game to 4-3 with just under three minutes to go.

There were some tense moments and some quality defensive moves by Komarov and Matthews, but in the end, the Leafs hung on for the win. 4-3 is your final.

Thoughts

  • The win obviously pales in importance next to the potential injury to Rielly, who is the Leafs’ minute leader this year and a key to their defence. He’s not perfect, but the Leafs do not have much defence depth, and if Rielly is out for any extended period, they’re going to have struggles.
  • In a spirit of frustration, it might be tempting to blame Sabres forward William Carrier for the Rielly injury, but I can’t say that I think he did anything offside. Speaking of Carrier: he was excellent tonight. His pressure helped generate the (boneheaded) Andersen error on the first Sabres goal, and he had a spectacular baseball finish on the third Buffalo marker. Just a tenacious, solid forechecking performance.
  • If you had asked me with no context how a typical Leafs-Sabres game this season would go, I would predict a defensively sloppy affair in which the Sabres got their share of chances but the Leafs ultimately outdid them through better talent and depth. This is pretty much what happened, albeit with some unexpected twists.
  • Every recap I do, I say “I shouldn’t talk about the Matthews line so much.” And then I do it anyway. The Matthews line was superb and matched up well against the Eichel line, and oh my God Matthews has such a good shot. They’re amazing.
  • Jake Gardiner stepped up in a huge way with Morgan Rielly out, setting a career high in TOI and providing his standard dominant possession performance. I must also say in fairness that the much-reviled pairing of Hunwick and Polak did solid work in this time of need; Hunwick quietly had one of his best games of the year.
  • Aside from Carrier, the Sabres as a whole had a poor outing; Evander Kane looked dangerous on the chances he got. Ristolainen looked decent in the offensive zone and ineffective in his own end.
  • Remember Matt Moulson? He actually finished as a possession positive tonight in extremely limited minutes, which is impressive since every Sabre but he and Cal O’Reilly was well underwater. I don’t remember hearing his name once and would not have known he still played for Buffalo had he not shown up in the boxscores.
  • The Leafs continue to hold down the third seed in the Atlantic, and now they’re only one point back of Boston with five games in hand. Things are getting real interesting.