Friday, November 4, 2016

Buffalo Sabres/Toronto Maple Leafs preview

Published by 11-3-2016

The headline reads, Maple Leafs head to Buffalo confident better luck is coming, and the opening paragraphs describe a litany of things the Toronto Maple Leafs have done to get off the schneid in Buffalo. Sportsnet's Chris Johnston penned the article and he aptly sums up the leafs troubles when traveling 60 miles south to Buffalo, "[the Leafs] still haven’t found any success at a building that has seen more names (three) than Toronto victories (two) since February 2009."

Think about it.

That's seven-plus years of futility in Buffalo against a Sabres team that was mired in mediocrity for years before they decided to pull the plug on the whole thing and go through a scorched-earth rebuild. Even in Buffalo's back-to-back, basement-dwelling seasons, names like Zac Dalpe, Cody Hodgson, Matt Ellis and Ville Lieno were hitting the scoresheet against Toronto while sending the Leafs to an 0-3-1 record in Buffalo.

Leafs benchboss Mike Babcock, who shunned the Sabres head coaching job for Toronto, knows nothing of their lengthy bought with futility 90 miles south down the QEW, although he did get a taste of it last year as his team went 0-1-1 at the former First Niagara Center. Babcock has himself a bevy of young, talented forwards at his disposal right now and is looking to the future, “I just know that Buffalo and us are teams that perceive ourselves to be in transition and getting better. We’re going to be battling with them for a lot of years to come," he said in the Johnston article

That is true.

I'm not sure where Leafs nation has their team on the rebuild timeline, but in Sabreland this is considered year-two of the build portion of the program and the Sabres are beginning to gain traction. Buffalo heads into tonight's contest vs. their neighbors to the north on a three-game winning streak, with two of those wins coming on the road in the middle of the continent. And that's despite being without forwards Jack Eichel and Evander Kane, two top-six, 20-goal scorers last season who finished first and fourth, respectively in goals for the team.

The Leafs come into Buffalo after snapping a two-game losing streak with a big win over Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday . Although the game was billed as the first heavyweight bout between two of Canada's hockey saviors, neither figured in the scoring. McDavid registered four shots on goal and was beaten by Toronto's Nazim Kadri for the game-winner in overtime while Matthews had six shots on goal.

With Eichel out of the mix, the NHL has turned it's attention to the hype-machine soon to be known as "McMatthews." Although we're still not sure if there's room enough in Canada for two saviors, the future of hockey, especially in the Great White North, is firmly in their hands. Make no mistake, these are two incredible talents leading two franchises that have been lost in the wilderness for decades. It's a great era for hockey and even though Eichel has been relegated to the scrap heap because of his injury, and because Matthews has become a media-darling perched high atop Mount Maple Leaf, hockey may have it's own version of Rock 'N Roll's early demi-gods that were Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry.

Unfortunately we won't get a glimpse of Eichel/Matthews Part I because of injury, just like last year when McDavid was injured for the first "McEichel" matchup. But we should, however, have ourselves a pretty entertaining game.

The crowd will be it's usual festive self at KeyBank Center as troves of Leafs fans head to Buffalo in search of a cheaper way to see their favorite team live. Seats at Air Canada Center in Toronto make going to the game an investment bordering on a new car so fans head south to pay premium Buffalo prices for tickets that are still far less than what they pay in Toronto. The resulting mix of Sabres/Leafs fans is nearly 50/50 meaning cheers and groans rise together at every turn.

Unlike "McEichel" or "McMatthews" where the two young stars play for teams in different conferences and therefore see each other only twice (at most) during the regular season, tonight will be the first of five meetings between the Sabres and Leafs. Buffalo has been pretty dominant at home going 9-0-1 in their last 10 meetings, but are only 5-2-3 in their last 10 overall vs. Toronto.

Robin Lehner, who's coming off of back-to-back wins while allowing only two goals in the process, gets the start in net, but the Sabres will have another injury heading into tonight's game. Defenseman Zach Bogosian caught some bad ice in Minnesota last game and will be out "for weeks," according to head coach Dan Bylsma, with a knee injury. In his place is rookie Casey Nelson who's been with the team since the beginning of the season but played in only one game as a replacement for an injured Dmitry Kulikov in the season opener.

Many early prognosticators were pulled into the whole Matthews/analytics movement in Toronto while predicting the Leafs would have a better chance at making the playoffs this year than Buffalo. Early on, when the Sabres were struggling as they went 1-2-2 in their first five, it looked as if that was a possibility despite the Leafs own 1-1-3 start. After all, they were possessing the puck and ruling Corsi and Fenwick--the hallmarks of the new wave of statistically based thinking. Although the Sabres aren't analytics-darlings like the Leafs, they came out of their funk with a back to basics, old fashioned approach. Through hard work and determination, good goaltending, solid team defense and capitalizing on opportunities, the Sabres outscored their last three opponents by a combined 8-2 score and won three games in four nights.

Water-mark No. 1 tonight between the Sabres and the Leafs has Buffalo sixth in the division with 10 points on a 4-3-2 record while the Leafs are eighth with nine points (3-4-3.)

Let the game(s) begin.

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