Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
...who's going to step up?
Prior to pulling out a 4-3 SO victory at Toronto last night, the Buffalo Sabres were going through a stinker at Air Canada Center and embarrassment was in the offing. The Sabres found themselves down 3-1 well into the third period before those who were expected to step up, did so.
In a "it's deja vu all over again" moment, the Toronto Maple Leafs jumped on the Sabres a mere :25 seconds into the game as undrafted rookie Nikita Soshnikov fed a streaking Leo Kamarov for the game's first goal. We won't ask the question as to why Sabres d-man Rasmus Ristolainen forgot Hockey 101 on a two-on-one break--cut off the pass, especially when there's a backcheck coming on the shooter--it happened and Buffalo had to play catch-up.
It was the second time this month that the Sabres got burned that quickly. The Sabres kicked off March with "McEichel-I" at First Niagara Center and Connor McDavid connected just :22 seconds into that game. The hullaballoo surrounding that goal was that Jack Eichel wasn't on the ice for the opening face off against McDavid, the franchise center picked on spot ahead of him in the draft last year. Eichel and linemates Sam Reinhart and Evander Kane weren't on the ice to start that game. Neither were Ristolainen and Josh Gorges, Buffalo's top defense pairing. But that group of five were on the ice for the Kamarov goal.
With the hometown fans in a tizzy, the Leafs extended their lead to 2-0 when former Sabre Brad Boyes banked one in off of Jake McCabe's skate and the Sabres found themselves in a hole headed into the first intermission.
It took Buffalo most of the second period to finally break through as Sabres d-man Mark Pysyk would notch his first goal of the year on a hard drive to the net. But Toronto went back up by two as Zach Hyman, playing in only his fifth NHL game, scored the first goal of his career with only :19 seconds left in the second period.
Being down by two goals twice was not all that surprising as Buffalo looked like they went into the game with visions of grandeur dancing in their heads. The Leafs are clearly in rebuild-mode, were 1-8-1 in their last 10 games and started 22 yr. old Garrett Sparks in net. Sparks, a 2011 seventh-round pick of Toronto (2011.)Last season Sparks was with the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL and this was only his eighth NHL game. Starting with Eichel there was a lack of urgency permeating the Buffalo skaters while Toronto coach Mike Babcock had his young squad skating hard.
The difference in the game, however, came down to what it almost invariably does--talent.
It took a scrum early in the third period featuring Eichel, Toronto's Nazim Kadri and a host of others, to jostle the Sabres from their slumber. Eichel in particular seemed to have found his legs and a mere seconds after exiting the penalty box ripped a snapshot past Sparks to pull the team to with a goal. In a true case of a secondary assist being worthy, Cal O'Reilly worked the half-wall in the Toronto zone and got it to Matt Moulson who eluded Maple Leafs d-man Frank Corrdado. Moulson sent a tip pass to Eichel who snapped it home.
Just over three minutes later, Eichel's linemates, Reinhart and Kane, would hook up for the game-tying goal and both players were true to form on the play. Kane streaked into the Maple Leafs zone and caused some uneasiness amongst Toronto's defense-pairing with a solid check behind the goal-line. A sneaky Reinhart picked off a Morgan Reilly's pass at the right circle and fed Kane who was right on Sparks' door-step. With stick on ice, Kane easily redirected a perfect pass from Reinhart into a gaping net.
Game tied 3-3.
More heroics were to come in the shootout as Buffalo goalie Chad Johnson foiled all three shooters while Reinhart scored the game-winner on his first ever shootout goal.
For those tallying, two 2nd-overall picks--Eichel (2015) and Reinhart (2014)--plus a 4th-overall pick (2009) in Kane did what they were drafted to do as they provided the answer to, "who's gonna step up?" This is the script that Buffalo GM Tim Murray wrote when he drafted Eichel and Reinhart and traded for Kane. It's taken 67 games and it came against the last place Toronto Maple Leafs, but the fact is they came through for the Sabres. In a hostile environment, against a rival and versus one of the best coaches in the game.
They were happy after the game and they should've been as it was a well-deserved victory.
Eichel's goal last night gave him three in the last three games. It was his 20th of the season and at 19 yrs., 131 days, he's the youngest Sabre ever to reach the 20-goal mark, according to Sabres PR. He beat former first overall pick Pierre Turgeon (1987) by nine days.
Toronto head coach Mike Babcock is considered one of the best in the business for a reason. After getting his feet wet with the Anaheim Ducks and coaching them to Game-7 of the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals, he took his talents to the Motor City where he guided the Detroit Red Wings to 10 consecutive playoff appearances and a Stanley Cup win in 2008.
Sabres fans should be well-versed in his coaching resume as he was Buffalo's top priority when they were looking for a successor to Ted Nolan who was released last season. Babcock, however, opted to sign a lucrative deal to coach a rebuilding Maple Leafs team. Granted, the Leafs are not in scorched-earth rebuild mode like the Sabres were the last two years, but they've moved a boat-load of talent and are now icing a team of youngins and veteran castoffs. Like Murray once said about the Sabres, Toronto's time is clearly the future.
Ya gotta hand it to Babcock and the Leafs, however, as they're losing, but they're entertaining in their losses as shown last night. Since getting drubbed by Chicago, the Leafs have lost twice in the extra session and have five regulation losses by only one goal.
Although Toronto only has a 20% chance of winning the lottery for the opportunity to draft phenom Auston Matthews, they'll have the best odds of landing in the top-three to grab an elite, impact player. With Babcock behind the bench, they'll only get stronger as they continue to add top-end talent.
It's good for the NHL and it's good for the Buffalo/Toronto rivalry that's been kind of stagnant for the better part of 10 years. Add that to "McEichel" should the Sabres continue to improve and the Oilers finally put it together under new GM Peter Chiarelli, and the NHL has the potential for some pretty impressive matchups.
It's at least a few years down the road, but it's pretty cool thinking about relevancy and rivalries for Buffalo, Toronto and Edmonton.
Should Bylsma be considering new linemates for Ryan O'Reilly when he returns from injury?
The line of Eichel, Kane and Reinhart has looked real sharp as the Sabres top line and have produced. In the last four games the trio has a combined five goals, seven assists and is plus-3. Eichel has three goals, Kane has two and Reinhart has four assists, three of them primary. Although the numbers aren't eye-popping, the eye test will tell you that they're really starting to gel and their individual strengths are starting to shine through more frequently.
Granted, the competition over the last four games hasn't been top-notch, but as a line they're growing. Tonight comes a real test they face the third best team in the Eastern Conference, the NY Rangers.
The Rangers will be without No.1 goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who's set to return from injury this weekend, forward Rick Nash and defenseman Marc Staal tonight. Despite missing three key players, the Rangers are a stacked team with plenty of speed and firepower up-front and a solid defense in front of backup Antti Raanta.
The Sabres head into tonight's game with a 27-31-9 record good for 24th in the league.