Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-26-2017
Sabres' players know what lies ahead when the Toronto Maple Leafs come to town. During the pre-game skate a trickle of blue and white jerseys will eventually turn KeyBank Center into what amounts to a neutral site game as fans from Toronto will make up a huge block cheering their beloved Leafs.
You can't blame Buffalo season ticket holders for reselling their seats at exorbitant prices to those descending from Mount Maple Leaf. It helps alleviate a rather hefty price-tag for said tickets and offers Leafs fans a respite from the gaudy ticket prices up in Toronto. It's only a 90 mile journey down the QEW for Leafs fans and the sojourn is well worth it. Taking in a game at Air Canada Center in Toronto will cost an arm and leg whereas Buffalo fans will gladly sell their tickets for either.
Prior to the drop of the puck it's a given that the crowd will consist of a large, boisterous contingent of Leafs fans whenever their team is in Buffalo. It makes for a fun, albeit uneasy, playoff-like atmosphere and the way to make every Buffalo fan happy, of course, is for the Sabres to win. A way to make it even sweeter is for them to send them back to Toronto with second thoughts about who really is the better team after a 5-2 thumping, like the Sabres did last night.
This season the Leafs have clearly been the better team as their 85 points and present playoff spot places them 11 points better and four spots higher than the Sabres. While the Leafs are battling for the post-season, the Sabres are looking at another season that will end after 82 games. As mentioned in the previous blog there are mitigating circumstances as to why these teams are so far apart in the standings the biggest factor being the injuries. Buffalo has had a number of them to key players all season while the Leafs have been nearly injury-free.
Last night Toronto had a taste of what it's like to lose a key player as goalie Fredrik Anderson left the game late in the first period with Buffalo leading 2-1. The 27 yr. old has been a stalwart in goal while adding stability and bestowing confidence on a young and very talented Leafs team with question marks on defense. Anderson went into last night's contest with a 30-15-14 record, a 2.56 goals-against average and a .919 Sv%. With him lost for the game, not even appearing on the bench after his injury, backup Curtis McElhinney was forced into service. McElhinney came into the game with some pretty strong backup numbers--6-5-2, 2.52 GAA, .923 Sv%.
We'll never know what would have happened had Anderson stayed in the game, after all he did give up two goals on 16 shots in the first, but according to Leafs head coach Mike Babcock, it may not have mattered. When asked the impact of Anderson going down and McElhinney coming in, he told the gathered media post-game, "No. This was all on us.
"[The Sabres] were better. They skated better. They were quicker. They responded after we scored. They looked prepared, we didn't."
Later in the interview Babcock said "pride is a wonderful thing" alluding to what was left for the Sabres to play for and nobody showed it more than Jack Eichel, who had a spectacular game for Buffalo.
Simply put, Eichel wasn't even an afterthought while being sidelined through the first 21 games of the season. Even after he returned, the mainstream media conversation always centered around Edmonton's Connor McDavid, Winnipeg's Patrick Laine and the trio of talented rookies from Toronto--Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. And rightfully so. That group has been a joy to watch this season.
But Eichel was the forgotten one and he doesn't seem like the type of person who likes to go unnoticed. Once he got his legs back from injury he's been a force. Eichel has 53 points (23+30) in 54 games, has 10 goals and 14 assists in his last 19 games which included an 11-game point streak.
Eichel and Matthews went head-to-head often this game with one shot having the two battling from the faceoff dot in the Buffalo zone all the way up-ice into the Toronto zone. The American phenoms join McDavid as a trio of young-guns that will take the NHL into the next decade. With McDavid out west, Eichel and Matthews will only face him twice each while the two American prodigies face each other five times a season. And that's what's turning the heat up in this rivalry that dates back to 1970, Buffalo's inaugural season.
Kudos to Matthews for doing what he always does--finding open space and scoring. The 19 yr. old who was reared in Arizona made it difficult on Sabres defenders all night long and scored his 34 goal of the season which tied the rookie goal-scoring mark set by Leafs legend Wendell Clark. But that was all for him.
This was Eichel's night punctuated by an in-your-face goal celebration after putting the Sabres up 5-2. In contrast to his first goal where he sent a rocket past McElhinney on an off-wing one-timer, Eichel's second goal was more of a change-up as he sent a deceptive snap shot short side. Think MLB's Aroldis Chapman who throws 102-3 mph regularly then throws a 95 mile-an-hour change up.
It's best to keep in mind that Eichel hates to lose. He backs up his talent is a fierce competitive edge and he was well aware of everything this game encompassed. “When you see that many Toronto people down here watching their team, it was almost like they overtook our building a little bit,” he told the media post-game. “This is our building, so obviously want to play well here.
"There was a little bit extra emotion in our game, a little bit extra intensity. It’s good to see. We always like to play against them. It’s obviously a rival, and nice to beat them.”
After scoring his second goal, Eichel did his one-skate celebration had headed directly to the corner with a large group of Leafs fans decked out in blue and white. It was the same corner that Toronto's Nazem Kadri celebrated in front of after scoring a goal the last time the Leafs made the playoffs in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.
A photo of that Kadri celebration spread across Canada and according to Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News and he quoted Kadri as saying that it's one of his favorite pictures, one that he has on his wall. "It seems like you're at the ACC in that picture with the amount of Leaf fans in the backdrop," he said.
With the goal-horn sounding and "Let Me Clear My Throat" being queued up, Eichel skated over with laser beam eyes locked in on the Toronto fans, slammed the boards and proceeded to spit.
This season may be lost for Buffalo, but an in your face moment like that helps make things a bit easier.
There will always be a large contingent of Toronto fans in Buffalo simply from an economic standpoint, but it really hasn't helped them all that much. After their win last night Buffalo is now 18-2-1 at home vs. Toronto.
Defenseman Brady Austin played his third consecutive game for the Sabres and continues to impress in a bottom-pairing role. the 6'4" 230 lb. surprisingly mobile defenseman had more good moments than bad and has been clearing the front of the net on a consistent basis, something we haven't seen from this group. "Big 67" was a plus-2 in 16:16 of ice-time last night.