The Toronto Maple Leafs visited the Buffalo Sabres Saturday night, who were hot on the heels of a loss to the Pittsburgh Penguis on the road the night before. After two straight wins this week over Florida and Carolina, the Leafs found themselves within 10 points of the eighth and final playoff spot and facing a Sabres team who sit only six points back of the eighth seed Atlanta Thrashers. Unfortunately, HSBC Arena is never an inviting place for Toronto, and reigning Vezina goaltender Ryan Miller has owned the Maple Leafs winning 11 of the last 12 meetings between the two teams.
Despite coming off a game the previous night, Buffalo came out swinging in the first period, opening the score three and a half minutes in on a Jason Pominville shot. Luke Schenn was victimized on the play as he fell while trying to clear the zone, resulting in a turnover to Vanek who was able to get the puck to Pominville at point blank range. Things didn’t get better from there, as Drew Stafford added a powerplay marker about two minutes later with Clarke MacArthur serving a hooking penalty. The Leafs just couldn’t get anything going in the first period, despite two powerplays.
The second period started with a little more promise for the Leafs, but after Miller made a great save on Colby Armstrong, the Sabres came down and Paul Gaustad beat Reimer to extend Buffalo’s lead to 3-0. Darryl Boyce, sporting a full face shield and a mean-looking scar on his nose, followed Gaustad’s goal with a tripping penalty that was more the result of some bad luck than anything else. Unfortunately, Tim Connolly was able to capitalize on the powerplay by waiting Reimer out and finding a gap , and the Leafs found themselves in a deep hole at 4-0.
Nikolai Kulemin scored a shorthanded goal on a broken play as Luke Schenn’s shot was blocked and bounced through the Sabres’ defenders. Less than five minutes later however, Drew Stafford cut to the middle on Dion Phaneuf and roofed his second goal of the game over Reimer’s shoulder to make it 5-1 Buffalo – a score that would stand as the second period drew to a close.
Giguere was in net to start the third period, and he was tested early as Buffalo started with a strong shift and pressure in the Leafs end. The Leafs did not surrender another goal, and the period meandered on until Francois Beauchemin fired it past Miller with 7:21 remaining to make it a 5-2 hockey game. Kris Versteeg created the chance by slamming on the brakes and floating a saucer pass across the ice and onto Beauchemin’s stick. Thomas Vanek scored on an unassisted breakaway with just over three minutes remaining to seal the victory for the Sabres.
The Leafs’ discipline in this game was a weakness Buffalo exploited for two powerplay goals, and the uneven flow of the game made it impossible for the Leafs to get back into the game after falling behind early. Right from the opening draw of the game, the Leafs looked sloppy: passes weren’t crisp, pucks were rolling off sticks, shots were fanned. James Reimer was unable to bail his team out on this night and it was a little disheartening for fans to see the Leafs turn in such a poor effort in front of the rookie who has given them so much support in his brief time at the NHL level.
Turnovers plagued the Leafs all night and the team that dominated Carolina so thoroughly only 48 hours prior was nowhere to be found. It’s hard to imagine this game was much more than just another instance of a young team battling inconsistency. When the Leafs play a good game, they look capable of beating any team in the league; yet, when they have an off night, it appears as though they’ll never turn the corner. The problem facing the Leafs is that based on their play up to this point of the season, they haven’t left themselves the luxury of taking any nights off if they hope to make a run for the playoffs, or just escape the draft lottery.