Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-17-2017
You couldn't ask for much more at this point in the season as two would-be rivals with young cores and differing levels of confidence face off tonight in a divisional battle. On the one side, the Buffalo Sabres have struggled mightily with consistency and in turn have struggled to rise from the bottom of the division with an 17-17-9 record. On the other, the 20-13-8 Toronto Maple Leafs are brimming with confidence having reached a playoff position at the half-way point of their season, which was much quicker than almost anyone anticipated.
This will be the third time in three weeks that the Sabres will be facing a team they're chasing in the division. The first was a home-and-home with the Boston Bruins to close the 2016 portion of the schedule. After two regulation losses versus the B's Buffalo found themselves 10 points behind them. Last week they had the opportunity to jump the Tampa Bay Lightning in the standings, but proceeded to lay an egg and in the process fell three points behind them. The Sabres laid another egg in a loss against the Hurricanes in Carolina the following night, but started off this week with an impressive win against the Dallas Stars in yesterday's matinee.
The 4-1 win at home vs. the Stars marked the return of Tyler Ennis who wasted no time in his first game back as he scored a mere :19 seconds in. Ennis had been out of the lineup for 30 games after undergoing groin/hernia surgery but yesterday he corralled a loose puck and ripped it home.
Much to the dismay of head coach Dan Bylsma, the Sabres got into a game of shinny in the first period but they skated themselves to a 2-0 lead, courtesy of Jake McCabe's first goal of the season before the Stars scored with five minute left in the period. A disallowed goal for a Dallas offside early in the second period kept the score at 2-1 until Jack Eichel restored Buffalo's two-goal lead at the 7:07 mark of the period. The Sabres would hang on and Eichel would add the empty netter with nine seconds left.
Bylsma has been preaching defense first all season especially against fast teams like Dallas and his club will face another fast and highly skilled team in the Toronto Maple Leafs who are brimming with confidence. The very young Leafs are hot having catapulted into a playoff spot by going 8-1-1 in their last 10 games. It's a run that has head coach Mike Babcock raising expectations and fans in Toronto once again falling for their beloved Leafs.
Mark Zeisberger of the National Post notes with wonderment that although this very young Leafs team doesn't have enough physical maturity to even grow discernable stubble, much less a playoff beard, their rapid development and "phoenix-like ascension" from the beginning of the season through Game-41 is a complete "transformation" leading to different expectations than in the past. He quotes Babcock as saying of his team right now, “I think a big thing is you’re expecting to win and that’s a big difference.”
A quote like that leads Zeisberger to surmise, "There’s a big distinction between 'wanting' and 'expecting' to win," he wrote. "For too long — dating back to the end of the late Pat Quinn’s reign a decade ago — this franchise settled for the former. Now, they are focused on the latter, with Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment chairman Larry Tanenbaum in a recent interview with Postmedia suggesting a Stanley Cup in the not-so-distant future isn’t such a farfetched concept anymore."
And there you have it. The inconsistent Buffalo Sabres head into Toronto tonight to take on a very confident Maple Leafs team. It's a four-point divisional game and the Sabres are 0-3 in situations like that as of late. It's Buffalo/Toronto. Bylsma/Babcock. Jack Eichel/Auston Matthews and it's a four point game that will have possible playoff implications down the road.
Really, for Game-44 on Buffalo's 82-game schedule, this is about as good as it gets.