The Toronto Maple Leafs finally acted like themselves against the Buffalo Sabres, stomping them 5-2. The Sabres scored two power play goals, but so did Auston Matthews, so how impressive is that really? Custis McElhinney got his first set of consecutive starts all season stopping 32 of 34 shots.
With the win, the Leafs tie their all-time regular season record for points in a season. Yes, I know about how the 2003-04 season didn’t have loser points, just be happy that we’re good again!
The @MapleLeafs matched their single-season franchise record for points, a mark set in 2003-04 (45-24-13, 103 points). #NHLStats #BUFvsTOR pic.twitter.com/js2iBfHyvC— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) April 3, 2018
The Leafs rolled the same top-nine forward group they always do, but the fourth line now has Matt Martin and Andreas Johnsson back in the lineup for Kasperi Kapanen and Leo Komarov. #BringYourOwnGoons
With the injury to Travis Dermott, who is out for a couple days, the Leafs have chosen to not call anyone up from the Toronto Marlies. They instead moved Ron Hainsey to the bottom pairing left side with Nikita Zaitsev. Both have logged heavy minutes this year so sheltering the two on a third pair against Buffalo is a good move.
Leaf line rushes:— Paul Hendrick (@HennyTweets) April 2, 2018
This goal may have been scored by Andreas Johnsson — his second goal of his NHL career in nine games, by the way — but it was created by Tomas Plekanec. The fourth line starts the play by rushing into the offensive zone on an odd-man rush. Plekanec shoots on Chad Johnson looking for a rebound and finding the puck back on his stick. Plekanec breezes by Scandella and circles the back of the net, finding Roman Polak at the point. Roman blasts a shot toward the net that Johnson fights away. Johnsson (two ‘s’’s) gets a couple wacks at the puck but it scatters to the corner. Plekanec races to the puck and throws it back toward Johnsson who finishes the play.
Plekanec did about three different things on that play. He had a shot, two rebound recoveries, and two shot-assists, all of which were vital to Johnsson scoring the opening goal of the game. Plekanec doesn’t have a goal with the Leafs yet, but I’ll take plays like that over worrying about counting stats every day.
At 12:36 of the first period, Marco Scandella took a high-sticking penalty. On the man advantage Nazem Kadri gets a great chance in front of the net on a pass from Mitch Marner. What else is new?
And then the Roman Polak show started...
At 6:49, Polak goes to the box for high-sticking. Polak has been really good in the second half of the season in not taking penalties, until now.
With less than a minute left in the first, Polak takes a second high-sticking penalty. This time he cuts Jack Eichel in his own zone. That’s a four-minute power play for the Sabres that will continue in the second.
The first period of the game was a mixed bag for the Leafs. Some players thrived (fourth line), while others didn’t (Polak and Carrick). Aggregate all of this and the Leafs come away narrowly trailing in shot attempts (14-15), behind in shots (7-9), but ahead in scoring chances (8-4).
Gardiner, Polak, and Carrick have given up the most high danger chances against. I wouldn’t put very much of the blame on Gardiner for any of those, especially seeing how bad Polak has been in his own zone this game. Carrick too. He seems overwhelmed on the first pairing with Rielly against top competition in his own zone.
With Polak back in the box to serve his double minor to start the second, Rasmus Ristolainen throws the puck towards the net from the high slot and Sam Reinhart tips it past Curtis McElhinney. Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey fail to tie up Reinhart in front of the net. Would’ve been nice to have elite penalty killer Roman “The Man” Polak out there.
Just because the Marner power play group has been elite this season, it doesn’t mean a second unit containing Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly, Andreas Johnsson, and Patrick Marleau can’t be elite too. After some good puck recovering from Marleau and Johnsson behind the net the puck comes back around to Rielly. He dishes a quick pass to Matthews who wires a perfect shot past the right shoulder of Johnson restoring the Leafs lead. Gosh, it’s so good to have him.
On a delayed offside call, Matthews picks up the puck in his own zone. He sees that the Sabres are making a line chang-- oh would you look at that! William Nylander is speeding past a fresh Scandella and a tired Justin Falk on a breakaway! Oh look, he scored too! This is fun!
Nylander can do more than just pick up gorgeous passes through the neutral zone for breakaways, he can also steal the puck from Sam Reinhart at the red line and spring himself and Zach Hyman for another chance in the offensive zone!
After Nylander poked the puck from Reinhart he gave the puck to Hyman before speeding past him to the front of the net. Hyman pushed the puck forward to Nylander who is left with only one defenseman (Scandella again) to beat; and he does. Nylander now has 19 goals and 39 assists at the time of this goal. He has 22 goals and 39 assists last season. For a season with its ups and downs — namely Matthews out for a quarter of it — that’s pretty darn good from Willy.
The Leafs burst out in the second period, looking great from the eye-test and on the stat-sheet. In terms of shot attempts for the second period the Leafs led by a few (17-15), led in shots by a lot (14-6), and stayed in front in terms of scoring chances (9-8). Overall, a much better period for the Leafs who finally look like they’re a top-tier team playing a bottom-tier club.
I’m not sure how Nicolas Baptiste and Jason Pominville were able to get three free rebound chances on McElhinney, but they did, and on the third chance Pominville scored. This was a goal on the power play with penalty killer Nikita Zaitsev in the box, by the way. On the Leafs end Rielly got stuck behind McElhinney and couldn’t skate around in time to get his body on a player, his stick flailing wildly to no avail. I honestly have no idea what Polak did to help, it definitely wasn’t enough. After a 20-game run of good play, this was frankly a terrible game from Roman.
Even-strength goal god Auston Matthews pads his special team stats with his second power play goal of the game with new-kid-on-the-block Casey Mittelstadt in the box for high-sticking. Jake Gardiner dishes to Nylander at the half-wall. Nylander sees a space open up through the middle of the ice...right to one Auston Matthews. In one motion, Matthews takes the puck and slings it past Johnson for only his fourth power play goal of the season. Coupled with 29 even-strength goals, Matthews has a cool 33 goals despite missing 20 games over the course of the season. A pace of 43 goals in an 82 game campaign. Not bad.
The Sabres put up a minimal fight, throwing volume at the Leafs net instead of generating quality chances. The Sabres moved the shot-attempt differential from three in favour of the Leafs to six in favour of the Sabres after Matthews’ second goal. We’ll chalk that up to score effects.
Adios, Buffalo Sabres! we’ll see you for...
March 6, 2018
...next season. :)