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Leafs vs. Sabres Recap: Toronto Puts Buffalo In The Garbage

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Leafs blast the Sabres early and coast to a 4-2 victory.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

The Leafs journeyed to Buffalo tonight to take on the Sabres. You know, our rivalry with the Sabres has always been meaner-spirited than our rivalry with other teams. We just hate them and want them to fail, and vice versa. I have good news about that!

First Period

The game started with several minutes of fast, end-to-end action, the first whistle not coming until 3:52 in. There was also some nastiness right off the top—Connor Brown sparred with Evander Kane off the opening draw, while Rasmus Ristolainen threw a heavy hit on Auston Matthews. Marner had a chance early as he turnstiled a retreating Cody Franson, but couldn’t get a good shot off.

However, it wasn’t long before the Leafs struck. They put in three goals before I was finished recapping the first one, in a 43 second stretch a little more than four minutes in. Here’s how they went down.

Robin Lehner played the puck to Buffalo defenceman Jake McCabe behind the net. Connor Brown charged in to forecheck him and jar the puck loose. Nazem Kadri picked it up and threw it across the low zone to Leo Komarov, who was standing at the far side of the net. Komarov scored the most effortless goal of his life to make it 1-0.

Then there was this one. This goal is one of my favourites of the season. Nylander does absurd trickery with the puck to ride the line, then turns to hit Matthews with a pass. Matthews snipes for his 39th of the year, and good lord was it pretty. 2-0.

Incidentally, this gave Matthews the sole ownership of the Leaf rookie scoring record (67 points.)

Shortly thereafter—very shortly thereafter—the Leafs had an o-zone faceoff. Tyler Bozak won it to JVR in the high slot; JVR kicked the puck to his stick and fired the puck past Lehner for 3-0. This was within 43 seconds of it being 0-0, and less than six minutes into the first period.

Lehner was pulled as Coach Dan Bylsma tried to stop the bleeding, though Lehner wasn’t really the problem.

As you might expect, the Sabres seemed shellshocked. Bozak nearly got a fourth goal, as JVR hit him with a past in the slot that he snapped away immediately. Sabres backup Anders Nilsson got his glove on it. In general, the Sabres really weren’t that bad in the first couple of minutes. After that they seemed to get terrified of making another mistake, and consequently made many. Shots were 10-1 Toronto when the mid-period commercial break came at 12:31 into the first.

The Leafs had the best of the ensuing action, too, although Alex Nylander had some neat playmaking. Evander Kane took an idiotic retaliatory slashing penalty on Jake Gardiner with just under two minutes left, so the Leaf had a powerplay to cap the period. Despite a extremely nice point-blank move by JVR in front of the net, the Leafs didn’t score. Marcus Foligno took another dumb Sabres penalty in the final seconds, cross checking Nazem Kadri.

I have seen the Leafs play good periods this season. I do not think I have ever seen them so utterly annihilate a team as they did the Sabres in these twenty minutes. Shots were 18-2 Leafs, which means that the Leafs had more goals than the Sabres had shots. The Leafs had an adjusted CF% of 78. That is bonkers. William Nylander stood out as being especially dominant, and I did notice his brother during the brief Sabres visits to the Leaf end of the rink. But sweet Jesus.

I got a little uneasy at this point, simply because there was virtually no way the Leafs were going to keep up barrage through two more periods, especially given score effects. But this was a period to remember.

Second Period

Toronto was sloppy with their man advantages to start the second, mostly struggling to get set up in the Sabres zone. Towards the end of the Foligno penalty, Leo Komarov tried to pass back to Gardiner; Ryan O’Reilly recovered and carried the puck up. Jake Gardiner seemed uncertain of how much gap to allow ROR, and as a result he got caught. ROR charged up and fired a shot past Frederik Andersen. 3-1.

The Sabres, motivated by the goal and presumably by pride, clearly revved up, and they had more dangerous chances in the first four minutes of the second than they had in the entire first period. Ryan O’Reilly had another dangerous rush, and seemed to be the best Sabre, but the quickness of the Sabres’ forwards was on display in a way it hadn’t been heretofore.

The nastiness got more pronounced as Buffalo clawed back into the game. Evander Kane sucker punched Andersen in the head on the way by, in what should have been a penalty.

Kane continued his reign of shittiness by slashing Kadri on the hands. The Sabres also kept coming offensively; Jack Eichel had what looked to be a tap-in stopped by adroit defensive work from William Nylander.

The Leafs still had their chances, but they also were clearly feeling more pressure in the d-zone, leading to a string of icings. One particularly unfortunate sequence led to Rielly and Carrick being stuck on through three whistles in a row.

ROR continued to threaten; at the other end, Connor Brown had a good chance on a good rebound shot. Anders Nilsson was consistently great; despite the rejuvenated Sabres, the Leafs could easily have added to their lead in this period were it not for him. But as it was, the second ended 3-1.

Buffalo was better this period, mostly because they couldn’t really have been much worse. Ryan O’Reilly was by far the most productive Sabre, Kane was a shit disturber, Nilsson was a quality goalie. At the same time, the Leafs weren’t really outplayed in the period on the whole (they had the edge in adjusted CF% for the period) and Nilsson had to be better than Andersen did (shots for the period were 11-6 Toronto; total was 29-8.) Still, the Sabres were not by any means dead and buried.

Although.

Ouch.

Third Period

The best chance in the first minutes of the third was a Sabres shot that caromed off Zaitsev’s skate and wedged directly under Andersen’s pad. Had it bounced a little differently, that could have been 3-2. Mercifully, it didn’t.

Jack Eichel took a penalty boarding Mitch Marner, a hit that drew some angry responses from the Leafs. Nilsson made an absolutely stunning glove hand save on Bozak. However, the Leafs weren’t done; after a failed clear, Mitch Marner held the line and threw the puck down to Kadri near the bottom of the left circle; Kadri took the pass off his skate and then shot it five hole through Nilsson. 4-1 Leafs.

There were some hurt feelings after the goal; Kadri and Ristolainen exchanged words and shoves, while Zegmus Girgensons and Nikita Zaitsev scrummed. It took a while to sort out the roughing calls; the eventual conclusion was that the Leafs deserved the extra penalty, so the Sabres went to their first powerplay of the night. Perhaps limited somewhat by Ristolainen being in the box, the Sabres weren’t able to cash, despite two shots.

4-1 might have a fraught history for Leafs fans, but for the most part the Leafs seemed to have the game under control. The Bozak line had some very impressive work, especially Bozak himself; they had an extended run in the o-zone and Bozak did some nice defensive work against Ryan O’Reilly.

Evander Kane took a misconduct penalty with about six minutes left, which may have been pre-emptive. Other than that, not much happened. Morgan Rielly struggled to keep a puck in with about a minute left and gave the puck away to Jack Eichel, who had an extremely free breakaway that he proceeded to score on, narrowing the score to 4-2.

This gave the Sabres a reason to pull the goalie in the final minute, trying for a desperation comeback, but nothing came of it. 4-2 Leafs is your final.

Thoughts

  • The Leafs dominated this game, for the most part. Obviously the first period, where they blasted the Sabres and put in the winning goal five minutes in, was the key, but the Leafs were the better team in the second and third. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s one of the better games this team has had this season. Good to see.
  • Also, fuck the Sabres. This was easily the dirtiest team we’ve faced all year. Especially Kane.
  • Ryan O’Reilly was the best Sabre skater, but really backup goalie Anders Nilsson was the star; he prevented the game from being a blowout with a ton of good saves in a long relief performance. The Sabres defence is terrible. It’s as bad on ice as it is on paper, which is to say, it’s bottom three in the NHL.
  • Matthews had an absolutely bonkers game. He had a goal, but he could have had three, he racked up tons of shots from danger areas, he was a possession demon, it was all just wonderful. William Nylander won the battle of the Nylander brothers (though Alex wasn’t bad, and was probably one of the better Sabres.) Morgan Rielly had some great moments, at least for the first 59 minutes. Really, aside from Gardiner having a gap control brainfart on the SHG, everyone had a really nice game, including Andersen with a typically steady performance.
  • The Leafs are the second team in the history of the NHL to have three rookies score 60 points in one season. The first one was the 1980-81 Quebec Nordiques, who played before the invention of goaltending and one of whose three stars was 24 years old. None of the Leaf big three have have turned 21 yet.
  • A player I want to note in particular: I’ve given Matt Hunwick a hard time in the past, but he’s been much improved in 2017 and he was very solid tonight, making several quality defensive plays. He’s settled in to being what he was in his pre-Leafs tenure, a quality, fairly conservative, third-pair defenceman. Good to see.
  • The Leafs jumped back into second in the Atlantic with the win, at 93 points; they’re one point up on both Ottawa and Boston, who are sitting at 92. Boston has one fewer game remaining. Tampa Bay is five points back.
  • Toronto plays Washington tomorrow night. If the Leafs win in regulation and Tampa Bay loses in regulation, Toronto will clinch a playoff spot.
  • Go Leafs Go.