While Leafs Nation is celebrating the return of William Nylander to Toronto, they’ll have to wait just a little bit longer for his season debut as their Leafs take on cross-border rivals the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night (7:30 p.m. EST, TSN4).
The Sabres found themselves grabbing headlines the last few weeks as they pulled off an unlikely 10-game winning streak through November. While no 10-game winning streak is “sustainable,” with an astounding seven of those 10 wins coming via OT or shootout in addition to some way above average goaltending from their duo of Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton, it was easy to label the Sabres’ start as punching well above their weight. Even during the hot streak, their expected goal and shot attempt shares were below what they were earlier in the season.
Nevertheless, the franchise is starting to take steps forward. With Rasmus Dahlin slowly transitioning into the biggest role on the blueline, the Sabres will have an elite defender that can produce and control the game at a higher level than Rasmus Ristolainen, who has been relied on way too much in Buffalo for a while now. With the addition of Jeff Skinner, the Sabres took a small risk considering his injury history and some consistency issues in years past, but they ultimately bet on Skinner’s underlying numbers and high-end offensive abilities. They have been proven right as it’s given them a left-shot winger to play alongside right-shot center Jack Eichel, rounding out a dominant top line that’s been producing at a crazy pace this season.
After losing their last three following the winning streak, the Sabres will go with Linus Ullmark in net tonight. While Hutton started seven of the 10 games during their winning streak and remains the first choice on most nights, in a back-to-back situation, Ullmark will get the start after averaging above a .935 save percentage in his last three games.
With Josh Leivo moved to Vancouver and Nylander coming back this week, the Leafs lineup situation will be changing a lot over the next few days. For now, Par Lindholm shifts back to the left wing next to Nazem Kadri tonight, reuniting a line from earlier in the year as the Leafs go with a bit of makeshift lineup while waiting for Nylander to be completely cleared to play.
It’s pretty miraculous what impact the return of Nylander will have on Toronto’s overall lineup. They could be looking at this contrast between tonight’s game and Thursday’s (or Saturday’s):
Zach Hyman – John Tavares – Mitch Marner
Patrick Marleau – Auston Matthews – Kasperi Kapanen
Par Lindholm – Nazem Kadri – Connor Brown
Tyler Ennis – Frederick Gauthier – Andreas Johnsson
Zach Hyman – John Tavares – Mitch Marner
Patrick Marleau – Auston Matthews – William Nylander
Andreas Johnsson – Nazem Kadri – Kasperi Kapanen
Tyler Ennis – Par Lindholm – Connor Brown
The Leafs are still waiting for their full lineup while the Sabres are in a back-to-back situation, but the atmosphere and intensity of these games with the split-crowd environment in Buffalo often makes for high drama. The fact that these two teams are playing each while jostling for the top spots in the division a third of the way through the season adds another thick layer of intrigue on top, in addition to the Auston Matthews vs. Jack Eichel storyline (both former USNTDP players who were a couple of days away from sharing a draft class, each have had their fair share of big games against one another in this matchup). This should be a good one tonight.
Game Day Quotes
Mike Babcock on the Buffalo Sabres:
Well, I think it’ll be different than the Minnesota game. I’ve seen these guys a number of times. Their last two games, they’ve been really dialed in. I’ve been impressed with their team and their structure, their speed, their work ethic; the whole thing. I think you’ve got a good hockey club and it’s going to be a good game here tonight.
Babcock on Tyler Ennis:
He plays on our second unit power play/ He’s a real good person. He’s got good energy about him, likes the game, likes life — that stuff’s contagious. Sometimes on the fourth line, you don’t get to play as much as you’d like, so being energized and upbeat every single day is really important to a team. He’s done that. He’s chipped in some goals for us. He’s got some skill and can play in different spots. He’s been good.
Babcock on the possibility of playing Kapanen on his off-side once Nylander returns:
I don’t know if that’s an advantage for him. When we’ve [considered that] we’ve moved Brownie over there to tell you the truth — not Kappy. What we’ll do is we’ll figure that out. Right now, without Willy here, we still don’t have that concern. But once Willy’s gets here, and with Mitch there and Kappy there and Brownie there, there’s lots people there. That’s why the Leivo situation happened.
Phil Housely on Rasmus Dahlin’s progression:
I think Dahlin is just an incredible talent and he is getting better every game. With our young players, there is a patience threshold because they are going to make mistakes. We understand that and we are working with them on those mistakes. But when he is on his game, he is a threat out there. He can make plays. He sees the ice. He can see the second level up the ice. When he adds to the rush, we saw the other night in the second period it was just a terrific individual effort. All in all, I just really like not only where his development is but where our young players are at.
Housley on the challenge Mitch Marner presents:
Just the speed element. He has got great speed and we are going to have to try to manage that. One thing I think we can do is just try to manage the puck. We are going to try not to feed their transition. They are a terrific rush team and they make one-touch passing up the ice. We are going to have to manage that. One way we can take that way from them is make good puck decisions and force them to play defense.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#12 Patrick Marleau – #34 Auston Matthews – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#26 Par Lindholm – #43 Nazem Kadri – #28 Connor Brown
#63 Tyler Ennis – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #18 Andreas Johnsson
#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Ron Hainsey
#51 Jake Gardiner – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#23 Travis Dermott – #92 Igor Ozhiganov
#31 Frederik Andersen
#40 Garret Sparks
Scratched: Justin Holl, Martin Marincin
Coming Soon: William Nylander
Buffalo Sabres Projected Lines
#13 Jeff Skinner – #9 Jack Eichel– #23 Sam Reinhart
#72 Tage Thompson – #37 Casey Middelstadt – #21 Kyle Okposo
#81 Remi Elie – #71 Evan Rodrigues – #17 Vladimir Sobotka
#10 Patrick Berglund – #22 Johan Larsson – #28 Zemgus Girgensons
#26 Rasmus Dahlin – #4 Zach Bogosian
#Lawrence Pilut – #55 Rasmus Ristolainen
#82 Nathan Beaulieu – #8 Casey Nelson
#35 Linus Ullmark
#40 Carter Hutton