Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-12-2017
Regardless of what Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock had to say about the "mythical" four-point game, when the Sabres left Air Canada Centre last night with a 3-1 win Toronto's lead over Buffalo was down to five points. "I have been in the league a long time, (points) only go up two at a time," is how he put it to the media on Friday.
Which is true, and coming from lead horse in the race, his follow up of, "We just keep trying to get our two each night," is quite apropos as well. But, with the Sabres trailing the Leafs in the standings, a loss in regulation would have made it an almost insurmountable nine point deficit, which is why Buffalo looked at it as a four-point game.
With 27 games left to play for the Sabres, there's no time to fool around. In too many instances--against Toronto and Boston in the Atlantic Division and Carolina, Tampa Bay, the NY Islanders and New Jersey in the Eastern Conference--the Sabres have been on the wrong end of a four-point swing and it has them at the bottom of a middling group of teams. Prior to last night's win at Toronto, Buffalo had a combined 0-12-3 record against those six teams. Five of them are ahead of Buffalo in the standings while Carolina is one point behind with two games in hand. The difference between Boston, who is at the top of this group, and Carolina is seven points.
Beating the Leafs is sweet anytime but doing so in Toronto by silencing the Air Canada Centre crowd with a dominating three-goal first period is even better. The Hockey Night in Canada crew didn't have much to say about the Leafs after Evander Kane scored twice, Sam Reinhart scored once with Jack Eichel assisting on all three goals in the first 20 minutes. Kane was a particular target last night for the HNIC crew as "the Black Sheep of Canadian Hockey" danced high upon Mount Maple Leaf with arms raised in goal celebrations.
There's no question Kane has had his off-ice issues which began in Winnipeg and continued in Buffalo, the latter of which was plastered on the HNIC broadcast screen at one point. Putting headline-tweets and a photo of Kane heading to court is tacky way to go about a begrudging acknowledgment of the two-year anniversary of his trade to Buffalo. But what else could they do while trying to protect the dignity of the self-proclaimed "Center of the Hockey Universe" as Kane and Eichel were leading an onslaught by the grubby little street urchins from 100 miles south?
Eichel himself has been the subject of mild derision from our Canadian friends when compared to Toronto's Saint Auston of Matthews. Although both players are American, Matthews is younger and is deemed much more special in the eyes of many. Matthews scored four goals in his first NHL game and that came on the heels of a top-six role for Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey. Eichel didn't come into the league with guns a blazin' on the most surprising team in the NHL this season but has gradually been increasing his feats of amazement and he's beginning to define games, like he did last night.
It wasn't just Eichel and Kane for Buffalo last night. Perhaps Sabres bench boss Dan Bylsma should get some props for putting together line combinations that gave the Leafs fits for half the game while having the ability to lock things down later.
Eichel, Kane and Reinhart had seven points total (3+4) and a cumulative +5 rating. Bylsma finally moved LW Marcus Foligno out of the top-six to the third line where he, rookie center Evan Rodrigues and captain Brian Gionta had a stellar night despite not hitting the scoresheet. Foligno's spot was taken over by rookie Justin Bailey who was on the left side with center Ryan O'Reilly and RW Kyle Okposo. Those top-nine players carried the load for Buffalo as the bottom line accounted for just 17:55 total even strength ice-time.
Goalie Robin Lehner weathered many a storm and only gave up one goal, which happened to carom off of defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. The Leafs swarmed Buffalo and peppered Lehner to the tune of 44 shots-against, but many of them came from outside with Toronto missing on a few choice opportunities. Lehner was the game's second star as he came away with a .977 save percentage.
Ristolainen, for his part, played a monster game. Although he's not considered elite yet, teams must game-plan for him as WGR550's Paul Hamilton pointed out post-game. Hamilton noted that it was the intention of Babcock and the Leafs to get Ristolainen off the ice. "Interesting strategy by Babcock," began Hamilton post-game. "They were trying to take Ristolainen off the ice, that was an absolute strategy by them."
Toronto's James van Riemsdyk was successful as he got into a "fight" with Ristolainen and both went to the penalty box for five minutes and that aggression was carried through all the way to the end when Ristolainen was forced to take on an extremely frustrated Matthews and Leafs teammate Mitch Marner with 3.4 seconds left. Ristolainen also cleared the crease all night which included a box out and body slam of van Riemsdyk from Lehner's crease.
It's been said time and again that your best players need to be your best players and the Sabres certainly had that last night. Yet the role players also played a pretty tight game. From the forwards back-checking and laying out hits to the defensemen blocking shots and clearing the crease, every man played a big part in the win.
That it was in Toronto against a team with whom they're developing a pretty healthy rivalry already, makes it sweeter and to finally be on the right side of a four-point swing is icing on the cake.
It was a good win last night, but...
Once again it means little if the Sabres can't follow it up with another one. As laid out in the last blog Buffalo has been hovering around the .500 mark lately and time is getting short. Since the All-Star break the Sabres are 3-3-1 and have alternated wins and losses their last five games.
The Vancouver Canucks come to town this evening for their second and final meeting of the season with Buffalo. Vancouver hosted the Sabres back in October and won by a 2-1 margin. Word on the street is that former Sabres goalie Ryan Miller will not be in net for the Canucks as he started and lost 4-3 at Boston yesterday.
Vancouver and Buffalo are in similar spots in their respective conferences and are only separated by two points with the Sabres' points-percentage barely above that of the 'Nucks.
Reinhart's goal was on the powerplay last night, they're only opportunity of the night, giving them four powerplay goals in their last three games. With their four goals on six opportunities, the Sabres powerplay is now ranked No. 1 in the league at 23.8%. As Chris Ryndak of sabres.com points out, the Sabres have not finished in the top five on the powerplay since 2005-06. The Canucks are 24th in the league on the penalty kill.
Bylsma said that Lehner will get the start, which is the way it should be. We all know that it's a back-to-back and that backup Anders Nilsson has been real good at home, but Lehner is beginning to distinguish himself as the unquestioned starter on this team. Although he's only 2-2-1 in his last five starts he's given up a total of nine goals-against in that span, has one shutout and had a save percentage under .949 ( a game which he lost against New Jersey,) only once.
Barring any injuries that came up as a result of a very physical game against the Leafs last night, one would assume that Bylsma would have the same line combos and same d-pairings he went with last night in Toronto.