Game Preview: Center-poor Leafs trudge into Buffalo

Game Preview: Center-poor Leafs trudge into Buffalo

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I’d say at least it can’t get much worse, but I wouldn’t want to tempt fate.

With Nazem Kadri sidelined by suspension, the Leafs find themselves in a position where their best active natural center is a player with one point in 17 games.

We’ll find out if the plan is to shift another winger to the middle (Raymond or Clarkson being the most likely candidates) or to simply call up Trevor Smith as the day progresses. The former scenario would involve calling up a winger, be it Josh Leivo (scored for the Marlies last night in a 3-1 loss) or Spencer Abbott.

The Leafs are struggling heavily with even strength offensive production as of late; while it is the 4-15-1 Sabres, one can’t imagine they will be breaking out in a big way with their top three centers missing for the next three games. It may further emphasize the need to capitalize on powerplays and win the special teams battle. Toronto has won a number of games with good special teams and great goaltending this season, and that may have to be the formula for the team to earn the team a few points before help arrives.

The Leafs have not been able to generate their usual rush opportunities against good defensive competition in recent games. Also hurting that component of their game has been James van Riemsdyk moving  to center ice, where he is not able to take the same advantage of counter attacking opportunities while playing the middle and tracking back deeper into the defensive zone.

The Leafs are lacking in a serious way at a crucial position, but they do still have some scoring talent in the lineup. Some of Kessel, JvR, Raymond, Clarkson and Kulemin will have to find a way to break through as the four have combined for just two points in the last four games (1-2-1), and zero even-strength points. Their center depth may have been obliterated, but these players should be able to find some opportunities against a team that allows more than three goals and 36 shots a game.

For the Sabres, this is their first game under a new head coach in Ted Nolan. Not that Nolan will have this team turned around after two practices, but there’s an infusion of motivation when the responsibility shifts onto the players after a coaching change, and in the early going, at least, it usually translates to some extra jump in the step. Sabres-Leafs games in Buffalo are usually spirited affairs to begin with.

As for the John Scott storyline, besides these anticipated vengeful, bad-blood match ups rarely living up to the hype, Carlyle’s message suggests it’s pretty far from his team’s mind nearly two months later:

“It happened a long time ago. It’s things like that that we don’t like to remember, and we just try to move on from that. We’re here to play a hockey game that’s going to give us the best chance for success, and they’re a hockey club who wants to show their new coach what they’re made of.”

Not to say Colton Orr doesn’t have fighting John Scott in the back of his mind, but when the Leafs are already banged up and suspended, and with two points on the line, it’s hard to imagine Scott being on the forefront of the Leaf thought process or else Carlyle isn’t doing his job.

As a fan, you’re hoping these adverse circumstances can turn into galvanizing character efforts wherein players step up and find ways to win games. Let’s find out what the Leafs can do. Obviously, center problems aside, this is a very beatable Sabres team.

 
Leafs
Sabres
Record11-6-14-15-1
GF/G2.78 (12th)1.65 (30th)
GA/G2.28 (6th)3.15 (27th)
SF/G26.5 (28th)24.8 (30th)
SA/G36.4 (28th)36.9 (29th)
PP22.2% (6th)13.6% (23rd)
PK84.9% (8th)81.2 (20th)
5 on 5 F/A1.12 (9th)0.53 (30th)
Sh%10.5% (4th)6.7% (29th)
Sv%93.7% (2nd)91.5% (14th)
FO%46% (25th)45.4% (26th)

No word yet on who is starting in net for the Leafs, but either way the two goalies will split the back to back.

To mix in a little trade speculation for your Friday – With the Panthers beginning their sale yesterday, thoughts on Shawn Matthias?

Alec Brownscombe is the founder of MapleLeafsHotStove.com, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He was also the editor of the 2009-12 Maple Leafs Annuals. You can contact him at [email protected]