After getting shutout out the previous night, the Toronto Maple Leafs bounced back with a strong 60-minute performance against the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night.

First Period

From the drop of the puck, the Leafs took control of the game in a big way. Frustrated from their 3-0 loss to the Nashville Predators on Tuesday and their recent form overall, Toronto channeled it well and came out with authority, piling on the scoring chances.

All four lines were jumping in the opening minutes of the period, but the Auston Matthews line really stood out. Matthews himself looked like a man possessed as he willed his way into creating some quality looks.

The relentless pressure from the Leafs through their speed and tenacity on the puck left the Sabres struggling to keep up. As a result, Buffalo eventually took a penalty that gave the Leafs a power-play chance.

While it didn’t result in any goals, Toronto once again looked to be fully in control and forced Carter Hutton into a flurry of saves.

Even when the man advantage failed to capitalize, the Leafs kept up the pressure back at even strength as Mitch Marner and John Tavares demonstrated here:

Toronto didn’t take their foot off the gas pedal and they were soon given another power-play opportunity. Much like the previous chance, the Leafs threw quality chances on net but failed to find the back of the net.

Unlike the previous attempt, Garret Sparks had to come up with a big save on a shorthanded breakaway for the Sabres.

After over 10 minutes of dominating play, the Leafs’ momentum was halted when Zach Hyman went to the box for a hooking call. On the ensuing chance, the Sabres found the ice-breaker.

Credit to Casey Mittelstadt for the great finish from in tight, although this is one that Sparks would like to have back.

The Sabres were handed another power-play just before the horn sounded, and the Leafs’ dominant period was all for naught. The question for Leafs entering the second period was whether they were going to be able to stay patient and continue to execute as they were in the first despite the scoreline, or whether a frustrated group was going to lose the plot chasing the game.

Second Period

Like the first period, the Leafs came flying out of the gate to start the second. Just over a minute in, Toronto finally found the twine.

It’s often a flukey one that precipitates the breakthrough, and Matthews will take it; there’s no doubt he earned it with how much he was dominating the puck in the first half of the game. Jake Muzzin does a great job here of getting the puck into a good area with traffic as well.

Just like that, the Leafs were off and running while continuing to keep up the relentless pressure in the Buffalo end. Strong work on the cycle, fast puck retrievals, and plenty of quality chances:

Again, the results of this overwhelming push from the Leafs put themselves back on the power-play for the third time of the game. They had their chances, but once more Hutton stood tall for the Sabres.

Sparks then answered at the other end of the ice:

The physical battle between the two teams began to pick up steam as the period marched on along:

Finally, with under two minutes remaining in the period, the Leafs grabbed a deserved lead.

This goal was all made possible thanks in large part to the strong individual effort from William Nylander in protecting the puck, using a slick change of pace to skate a lap around the zone, and firing a rocket off the post.

Third Period

Just 22 seconds into the third, the Leafs added an insurance marker.

An excellent play along the boards from Tavares in winning the puck battle and protecting the puck set up Marner, whose initial shot was stopped by Hutton before the rebound bounced off Rasmus Ristolenian and into the net. The Leafs were finally getting some due puck luck for putting in the grunt work throughout the night.

After that goal, the Sabres seemed to grab back some momentum and turned the tides in their favour. In a matter of minutes, their efforts were rewarded.

The good news is that Nylander scored; the bad news was that it was the wrong Nylander. While he’s got a ways to go in his skating to catch up to big bro, Alex’s shot is no doubt on William’s level.

From then on, Buffalo was starting to generate a push and weren’t going quietly into the night, while the Leafs were forced to dig deep in a back-to-back situation to see this one out.

The intensity of the rivalry in the split-crowd Buffalo atmosphere continued to rear its head:

With time winding down, both teams pressed for the all-important next goal and the Leafs continued to generate some high-danger looks as the shot clock climbed.

With just under three minutes remaining, the Sabres pulled their goalie in an attempt to force overtime. While there were some close calls with the tired Leafs legs late in the back-to-back, Zach Hyman sealed the deal for the Leafs.

A sigh of relief as the Leafs closed out a dominant performance with a critical bounce-back victory.

Clip of the Night

Notable Stats

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Locations

Post Game Notes

  • This was a convincing Toronto Maple Leafs performance at a much-needed time in the season as they controlled the game from the opening draw to the final horn. Given the teams’ struggles over the past week and a half prior to this one, the desperation was obvious and refreshing. They were using their speed, winning puck battles, forcing turnovers, and piling on numerous quality scoring chances that kept the Buffalo Sabres on their heels. While the Leafs did allow the first goal for the sixth consecutive game, they were the better team and their efforts were rewarded. The fact that every Leafs player registered at least one shot on goal was a good statistical summation of the performance.
  • What else can be said about the Auston Matthews and William Nylander duo that hasn’t been said already. Along with Andreas Johnsson, they were the Leafs best line and it was the kind of dominant performance we’ve been waiting for from this trio. At 5v5, they recorded a 73.08 CF%, a 77.78 FF%, a 92.31 SF%, a 76.92 SCF%, a 71.43 HDCF%, and an 83.63 xGF%. What made their game especially impressive was how in sync each member of the line was in setting up scoring chances and creating space for one another in the offensive zone. There’s a reason why this has been the Leafs’ top dynamic duo the previous two season, and while there is a lot of doom and gloom in Leafland right now, if they can get both the Matthews-Nylander and Tavares-Marner duos rolling for playoff time, that’s not an easy matchup situation for any team in the league.
  • The John Tavares line also had a strong game and were similarly dominant as the aforementioned Matthews line was. Tavares, Mitch Marner, and Zach Hyman have been the Leafs most consistent combination all season and Wednesday’s game was a prime example of why that continues to be the case. The trio registered a 73.68 CF%, a 73.33 FF%, a 72.73 SF%, an 80.00 SCF%, a 100.00% HDCF, and an 80.98 xGF% at 5v5. As shown on the third goal, they were solid in the cycle game, winning puck battles and in forcing turnovers to create quality scoring chances. This play style has been their bread and butter throughout the season and it was on full display tonight, including a Tavares finish from his office in front for #41 on the year.
  • Especially in wake of some of his post-game quotes that were debated online following the loss to the Senators, there was a lot of pressure placed on Garret Sparks to deliver a strong showing in this game. It’s safe to say that he did just that with one of his better starts of the season. While his workload wasn’t large having faced just 24 SA, there were a fair number of quality chances against the run of play with long gaps in between and he was up to the task when called upon. He finished the night with 22 saves, a .917 SV%, a 2.00 GAA, and a 1.000 HDSV% in 60 minutes of action. While he would have liked to have his first goal back, he “did his job” in this one, as Babcock likes to say.
  • Finally, it was an improved performance from the Leafs defensive unit but the Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey pairing had a really solid game. The duo combined for a 78.33 xGF%, a 65.38 CF%, a 63.16 FF%, and an 80.81 xGF% Score adjusted at 5v5. Both players were strong in starting breakouts, carrying the puck up the ice, joining the attack, and making important stops in the defensive end to make Sparks’ life easier.

Condensed Game