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Gameday: Maple Leafs @ Sabres in the Hammer

The NHL Heritage Classic is in Hamilton, officialy neutral ground.

2022 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic - Practice & Family Skate Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

Toronto Maple Leafs (37-16-5) @ Buffalo Sabres (19-32-8)
Leafs Game #59
Time: 4:00 p.m. ET
Broadcast: SN, TNT
Place: Tim Horton’s Field, Hamilton, ON
Opponent’s Site: Die by the Blade

Ah, Hamilton. The Hammer. Steel City. Oh, never mind, I see they have re-branded as “The City of Waterfalls”. I guess there are lots of waterfalls over The Mountain—that’s the local name for the Niagara Escarpment for those of you in the rest of the world—though sadly the best named one of those waterfalls is located across the municipal boundary to the east in Niagara Region.

I spent the first 24 years of my life in the city, growing up in the Westdale neighbourhood adjacent to McMaster University. The proximity to that school and some quirks of geography meant it was more like growing up in a US-style college town, and as such I was somewhat unaware of the realities of much of the rest of the City as it went through the typical 1980’s rust-belt decline, but a monument to that time remains—more or less—and the Maple Leafs are visiting it today.

Tim Horton’s field is the home of the CFL’s Tiger Cats. It was built to replace the aging Ivor Wynne Stadium, which was famously plunked down in the middle of a residential neighbourhood with people’s houses literally across the street on three sides. This neighbourhood was once the home to huge numbers—thousands—of the workers employed in Hamilton’s lakefront factories which in the post-war era cranked out everything from raw steel, to tires (my Great Uncle worked for Firestone), and at one point even cars, all of which was shipped off in Lakers and trains to destinations across Canada and the US. Ivor Wynne was the stadium for those workers, for their hometown team, and the site of many epic battles which were all about putting city pride on the line, especially when the Argos were in town.

Today’s game is a a little different from that historic rivalry. Hamilton has always had some split loyalties for hockey. Growing up in the 80’s we had access on cable TV to stations from both Toronto and Buffalo, plus our beloved CHCH which I think did have the broadcast rights to some Leafs games at one point, but I can’t quite remember back that far. There was no way you could see every NHL game back then, or even most NHL games, not even for your own local team, but having access to the Buffalo stations meant you could see some Sabres games and those teams they played against too—and as a bonus after the game you could watch the Buffalo news and Irv Weinstein talk about the latest fires in Tonawanda. There were also those unfortunate souls who became Buffalo Bills fans because of the same. Have pity on them.

All of this is a part of why Hamilton really is a neutral ground for the Leafs. There’s also the Hamilton Bulldogs (AHL version) which established a loyal fanbase of their own. The Marlies @ Bulldogs games in Copps Coliseum were pretty wild in the 2010’s, helped in part by 50% off beer for the first period. I believe that’s where William Nylander made his debut in North America, and I even still have a picture of him I took from that game, on January 23, 2015.

Look, phones did not have great cameras back then, OK, but that is him on his very first shift for the Marlies.

I expect a really nice mix of fans at today’s game, with a bit of a tilt to the Leafs, but some good Sabres representation as well. It should be an energetic crowd.

Sabres Projected Lines

Forwards

Jeff Skinner - Tage Thompson - Alex Tuch
Victor Olofsson - Casey Mittelstadt - Kyle Okposo
Peyton Krebs - Dylan Cozens - Vinnie Hinostroza
Rasmus Asplund - Cody Eakin - John Hayden

Defense

Rasmus Dahlin - Henri Jokiharju
Mattias Samuelsson - Jacob Bryson
Robert Hagg - Mark Pysyk

Goalies

Craig Anderson - confirmed starter
Dustin Tokarski (former Hamilton Bulldog!)

Leafs Projected Lines

(source: Mark Masters from yesterday’s practice)

Forwards

Michael Bunting - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner
William Nylander - John Tavares - Ondřej Kaše
Ilya Mikheyev - David Kämpf - Pierre Engvall
Wayne Simmonds - Alex Kerfoot - Jason Spezza
OUT: Nick Robertson, Kyle Clifford

Defense

Morgan Rielly - Timothy Liljegren
TJ Brodie - Justin Holl
Rasmus Sandin - Ilya Lyubushkin
OUT: Jake Muzzin, Travis Dermott

Goalies

Petr Mrázek - confirmed starter
Erik Källgren
OUT: Jack Campbell

This brings us to the “big deal” of this game: Peter Mrázek. Whether it’s fair or not, his entire career with the Maple Leafs may hinge on this game, a situation which arose completely unexpectedly last week. With Jack Campbell’s rib injury forcing him off the roster for a few weeks, Mrázek was put in net to start against the hapless near last-place Coyotes and it was a disaster. He was unceremoniously yanked out 30 minutes in to the game after letting in four goals, and he was replaced by Källgren who was then playing in his first ever NHL game. Here is a the video with some particularly gory details of Mrázek’s play in that game.

Mrázek has always been questioned by the fanbase since he got here; his track record is shaky, though it is a net-positive, but that’s not enough to quench the doubts about whether he can truly backup Campbell for a long run of playoff games after a gruelling season.

Coach Sheldon Keefe only escalated the rhetoric surrounding the goalie situation after the Coyotes game with comments indicating he was indecisive about whether or not Mrázek would start today’s high profile game, or whether he would let rookie Källgren have another go. That has set the stage for this game to be a defining moment for Mrázek. A rough start leading to a loss in this game will tilt the conversation even further against him. A really bad start where he gets pulled for Källgren a second time and... well I don’t know what will happen then, only that it will be ugly.

Talk about pressure. He must feel more today than anyone else on either team. This is neutral ground for everyone but him.

GO LEAFS GO!