It was a battle of the basement tonight at the Air Canada Centre, with an abundance of young talent featured between the Sabres and Maple Leafs.

The highly-effective Soshnikov-Kadri-Komarov line got to work quickly tonight, snagging the Leafs the opener before the one-minute mark. A Rielly pass to a well-positioned Soshnikov led to a rush down the right wing by the rookie before a backhand dish between a set of legs found Komarov for an easy tap-in.

To state the obvious, Soshnikov has made an immediate impression. He has a dangerous skill set that is supplemented with a fiery willingness to shoot, hit, mix it up in scrums and play both ends of the ice. Obviously, it’s way too soon to make any judgement on the Russian import. Certainly he has endeared himself to Mike Babcock, who had this to say after the 22 year old’s second game:

“I loved him. If you play hard and you’ve got a skill-set and you’re determined like that and you have no fear you find a way to play a long time.”

Just as Soshnikov notched his third point in his 13th NHL period, there was an early scare as a missed hit by Soshnikov ended with him hitting the boards hard. Sosh left the game for a bit, but returned to the bench before the end of the period.

After an extended look on the powerplay (including a two-man advantage), the Leafs secured their second of the night via a Brad Boyes shot that deflected in off of McCabe.

The second period featured stretches of sloppy play as to be expected in a game between two bottom feeders. However, it was punctuated with some more excellent shifts from Soshnikov and co.

A dribbler of a goal by the Sabres’ Pysyk was answered before the end of the period by Zach Hyman to restore Toronto’s two-goal lead. Hyman continues to exhibit a penchant for driving the net and it’s no surprise his first in the NHL was a determined effort in the Sabres crease.

Kyle Dubas had this to say about the young two-way winger recently:

“He’s a tenacious worker, excellent on the forecheck, and not just getting there and rattling guys around on the forecheck, but getting there and getting the puck back and letting us play on offence, which to me is the key thing. Possession-wise he’s one of our best players, if not our best player, and now he’s starting to also score.”

Mike Babcock may not have professed his love for Hyman yet, but there’s a grinder-shaped hole in his heart after his separation from Justin Abdelkader and Hyman is a strong candidate to fill it.

One of the bigger takeaways from the excellent debuts of Hyman and Soshnikov? The sublime skill present in players like Nylander and Marner may very well have some complementary two-way puck hounds already in the fold.

Unfortunately, the team’s youth, inexperience and the fervent prayers of Tank Nation culminated in a blown two-goal third-period lead and a shootout loss. This writer? Not even mad. While the losing may wear thin on the players themselves, it continues to be a joy as a fan to watch the young talent this franchise has amassed take their first steps in the NHL.

Player Notes

William Nylander
While Soshnikov and Hyman were the best Toronto rookies tonight, William Nylander flashed his dangerous potential on several occasions. On a first period powerplay he was set up twice in a short span by Kadri and couldn’t quite get solid contact on the puck in either case. However, his powerplay presence off the left half-wall is undeniable and the combination of Nazem and Nylander should burgeon into a pleasure to watch. Needless to say, the young Swede’s silky mitts will make him a serious threat with the extra man for this franchise in the years to come.

The Vets
Milan Michalek’s first game in a Leafs uniform was a rather nondescript 12 minutes and 31 seconds, which is fully expected considering the lengthy layoff that the Czech winger is coming back from. Along with Brooks Laich and Colin Greening (to a lesser extent), Michalek represents unwanted contracts that Toronto took back to improve their trade returns. However, Michalek and Laich are both widely known in the league as excellent teammates and hardworking players with two-way utility left in the tank (if not much else). One only needs to look at the gongshow in Edmonton to realize the value of versatile veterans that can lead by example when it comes to the everyday hard work that is requisite to being an effective NHLer. We’ll see if Michalek can be one of those for this Leaf team moving forward.

Michael Grabner
Grabner is cold. Ice cold. He notched his first point in forever (27 games) tonight and continues to contribute only on the penalty kill. It will be interesting to see where (and in which league) Grabner lands next year and at what cost because he is an excellent penalty killer that offers almost no 5-on-5 offense at this point.

Garret Sparks
A calm night in net for Sparks despite the blown lead. Garret had a big stop in overtime and was solid overall. Sparks hasn’t looked out of place in his time in the big league this year, which is sadly more than you can say for Toronto’s actual #1 (?) netminder.

All Situations Shot Attempts

chart (23)

Leafs Player Stats — Buffalo 4 vs. Toronto 3 (SO)

B. Boyes RW1001011:331:340:009:59000
C. Carrick D0102014:040:310:0013:33000
F. Corrado D00-10010:510:000:1410:37000
J. Gardiner D0101022:322:240:1419:54000
M. Grabner RW0102018:320:004:5313:39020
C. Greening LW0002013:171:380:0011:39000
P. Holland C0003014:201:460:0012:346554.5
M. Hunwick D00-11227:090:054:2422:40000
Z. Hyman C10-14216:120:050:5215:15000
N. Kadri C00-11620:022:480:0017:147558.3
L. Komarov C10-15219:472:321:1715:581233.3
B. Laich C0001011:390:270:1710:553350
M. Marincin D0011025:010:005:4519:16000
M. Michalek LW0001212:431:321:0410:07000
W. Nylander RW00-11016:212:250:0013:564640
M. Rielly D01-12024:191:522:1120:16000
B. Smith RW0111015:060:001:4313:238753.3
N. Soshnikov RW0104013:521:060:0012:46000

Leafs Player Possession Stats — Buffalo 4 vs. Toronto 3 (SO)

NameCorsi ForCorsi AgainstCorsiCorsi For%Zone Start%
MATT HUNWICK27161162.79%72.73%
CONNOR CARRICK109152.63%37.50%
ZACH HYMAN1710762.96%85.71%
MILAN MICHALEK67-146.15%66.67%
FRANK CORRADO68-242.86%71.43%
BROOKS LAICH127563.16%33.33%
PETER HOLLAND76153.85%66.67%
BEN SMITH167969.57%33.33%
BRAD BOYES58-338.46%50%
GARRET SPARKS53332061.63%60%
COLIN GREENING136768.42%33.33%
WILLIAM NYLANDER1312152%66.67%
MICHAEL GRABNER156971.43%83.33%
NIKITA SOSHNIKOV159662.50%62.50%
NAZEM KADRI2011964.52%60%
MORGAN RIELLY2213962.86%70%
LEO KOMAROV2191270%83.33%
JAKE GARDINER1913659.38%54.55%
MARTIN MARINCIN2181372.41%54.55%

Mike Babcock Post Game