Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Sabres/Leafs, Eichel/Matthews, Nylander/Nylander? There is meaning tonight

Published by, 4-3-2017

If you're going to get up for a hockey game this late in a lost season, this would be the one. The Buffalo Sabres will face off against the Toronto Maple Leafs and their large contingent of fans descending from Mount Maple Leaf tonight with nothing but pride on the line as they try to play the role of spoiler.

Toronto heads to Buffalo third in the Atlantic Division, tied with the Ottawa Senators in points,  with a three point lead and a game in hand over the Tampa Bay Lightning who are just outside the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. The Leafs have made the playoffs once in the last 13 seasons and a win against the rival Sabres would give the feel of that glass slipper beginning to slip past the heel on their Cinderella season.

With nothing much left to play for as a team for the remainder of the season, an opportunity for the Sabres to make life difficult for the Leafs inside a sure to be raucous KeyBank Center should get their blood pumping even though they'll be playing in the second game of a back-to-back.

Buffalo hosted the NY Islanders on Fan Appreciation Day yesterday afternoon and proceeded to lose 4-2. With all due respect to the players, it would seem as most weren't overexerting themselves either physically or mentally as the Islanders capitalized on the Sabres generally uninspired play. NY's first two goals were the result of sloppy play and with the score tied 2-2, the Islanders Anders Lee capitalized on two mental errors for two unassisted goals. In all the Islanders only had two assists on their four goals.

I'd be remiss if I left out the effort of recently signed winger C.J. Smith who was making his pro debut against the Isles. After getting over butterflies Smith settled into his game which was skating and being hard on the puck. He got his first professional point yesterday as he found a seem at the Islanders blueline and went in 2-on-1 with Evander Kane who was streaking in on the left side. Smith calmly sent a backhand pass to a wide open Kane who proceeded to rocket a wrister home.

But the fact of the matter remains, the Sabres knew they had a back-to-back against Toronto, their 18th of a league-high 19 back-to-backs, and one couldn't blame them too much if they were saving much of their energy for tonight's game. It's one of the last chances, if not the last chance, they'll have to play a game with real meaning.

The two teams met just 10 days ago as the Leafs came to Buffalo having won three in a row and four of their previous five. Buffalo defeated the them 5-2 with Toronto starting goaltender Fredrik Andersen leaving the game because of injury. Anderson allowed two goals on 16 shots in the first period before backup Curtis McElhinney took over. Kane, Ryan O'Reilly and Dmitry Kulikov all had single markers for Buffalo while Jack Eichel had two goals and an assist. In three games vs. the Leafs with Eichel in the lineup this season the Sabres are 2-1-0, outscoring Toronto by a combined 11-7. In those three games Eichel has six points (2+4) and is a plus-1. His American phenom counterpart in Toronto, Auston Matthews, has two goals and is a minus-1 while Kane has really taken to playing the Leafs scoring four goals and chiming in with a plus-4 rating.

In addition to the renewed Sabres/Leafs rivalry, there could be some sibling intrigue throw in for good measure as Sabres rookie Alexander Nylander is rumored to be making his pro debut. Nylander's older brother William is in his first NHL season and is having a helluva year for the Leafs. The elder sibling has 22 goals and 37 assists through 77 games and was just named the NHL's Rookie of the Month for the second time this season.

Although it hasn't been a great season for Buffalo by any stretch of the imagination, the game tonight should have a playoff atmosphere and although the Sabres have waltzed through a number of games as the curtain slowly closes, this game has a lot of meaning for them as a team. It also has meaning  for individuals like Eichel, who will always be compared to Matthews and Edmonton's Connor McDavid, and for Nylander, who's up against the premier rookie season his brother is having. Young Buffalo players like Smith and William Carrier are looking to make an impression while some vets are looking to hold their places with the Sabres.

And then there's the horde of Blue and White invading KeyBank Center. As Eichel did when he punctuated his goal with a glass-slam in front of a large group of Leafs fans, it's a matter of defending the home turf.

If you can't get up for this one, you probably don't have a pulse.

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