After a blowout victory in Detroit gave them three wins in a row, the Toronto Maple Leafs arrive in Buffalo for a Black Friday matinee against the Sabres (4 p.m. ET, TSN4).
On a bit of a tear at the moment when it comes to bucking the tendencies of the previous coach, Sheldon Keefe has broken Mike Babcock’s golden rule by deciding to start Michael Hutchinson this afternoon in Buffalo — the first game of a back-to-back. Keefe attributed the decision partially to Hutchinson’s familiarity with afternoon starts in the AHL, but I’d suspect the main reason is that Keefe wants Hutchinson to gain some confidence in a more favorable situation at the NHL level.
Sheldon Keefe explains decision to start Michael Hutchinson tomorrow
* Hutch used to afternoon (4 pm) starts in AHL
* Early start, short travel means Freddie can have normal game-day routine Saturday
* Team doesn't have win in 2nd game of back-to-back yet
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) November 28, 2019
The Leafs, over the past couple of years, have had a lot of success in the first game of a back-to-back by starting Frederik Andersen. After a certain point, though, the Leafs had to do something different to help their second goaltender get some traction or else they were going to continue to struggle with their backup position all year for the second straight season.
On the subject of adjustments, Keefe has found the right combination of wingers to play alongside John Tavares on his matchup line in the three games at the helm so far. With Mitch Marner out injured, moving up Ilya Mikheyev and switching Hyman to his strong side has paid dividends: In just over 43 5v5 minutes together, including an OZS/NZS/DZS ratio of 18/17/11, that line has taken 61 shot attempts with just 38 against, while generating 4.7 xGF/60 while surrendering just 2.3 xGA/60.
We’ll see how much Keefe can get that line out there this afternoon against Jack Eichel, who has traditionally lit the Leafs up, with five multi-point games to his name in their last eight meetings. The Sabres are something of a one-line team at the moment, especially after a run of injuries; Eichel’s line alongside Victor Olofsson — a former seventh-rounder who has dominated in both the SHL and AHL in the past few years — and Sam Reinhart — Eichel’s primary running mate in recent seasons — has given the Sabres their only consistent trio this year.
On top of the split-crowd atmosphere in Buffalo, the Matthews vs. Eichel rivalry usually makes for must-watch television in these games: Matthews is riding an eight-game point-scoring streak against the Sabres with five goals and 13 points over that span.
Adding to the intrigue, the two teams are just two points apart in the division with a game in hand for Buffalo, so this weekend could represent a big swing if one side were to walk out with a couple of regulation victories.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on giving Hutchinson a second chance:
We talked to a number of players to get their perspective on the situation. They felt that he deserved another opportunity and they were excited to get a chance to play in front of him again.
Keefe on if it’s easier to implement new systems when coaching at the highest level:
I think their experience is certainly one part of it. The calibre of player, of course, is better at this level. The skill level is higher. In some cases, the hockey sense and intelligence is higher as well. You get all of that. That is one thing that is surprising: How quickly they’ve been able to pick up on things. It just speaks to the calibre of player and the type of team that we have.
Keefe on the difficulties for him personally going from the AHL to NHL:
That has been the challenge for me — just sorting through routines and patterns of preparation we want to establish. That’s somewhat new here. The games mainly are all night games. The number of night games, the morning skates, the distance between the different cities as you’re moving around — those are the types of things I am trying to sort through and making sure I don’t get bogged down by those deals.
I am trying to learn from the assistant coaches that we have about what has been done in the past and what they are comfortable with. It’s really not just about me. It’s about making sure our entire staff and all of our players are operating at a high level. I’ve got to make sure all of that stuff is in order and that is going to take me some time.
Keefe on his thought process behind starting Hutchinson tonight:
That certainly was part of the decision-making and we considered that. There are more things at play in this situation as well, given it is an earlier game. I know Freddy played the game in Colorado, but Hutch has played more in the American league and this past week was in the American league. 4:00 p.m. starts — he is accustomed to that. Also, we are going to get back to Toronto at a good time. That is going to give Freddy a normal game day on Saturday — the morning skate, get ready to play. With all of those things, it just made sense for us.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #91 John Tavares – #11 Zach Hyman
#61 Nic Petan – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#47 Pierre Engvall – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #41 Dmytro Timashov
#44 Morgan Rielly – #83 Cody Ceci
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #94 Tyson Barrie
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#50 Kasimir Kaskisuo
Scratched: Nick Shore
Injured: Mitch Marner, Trevor Moore
Suspended: Alex Kerfoot
Barrie – Nylander – Matthews
Kapanen – Petan – Spezza
Buffalo Sabres Projected Lines
#68 Victor Oloffson – #9 Jack Eichel – #23 Sam Reinhart
#13 Jimmy Vesey – #37 Casey Mittelstadt – #90 Marcus Johansson
#53 Jeff Skinner – #22 Johan Larsson – #43 Conor Sheary
#28 Zemgus Girgensons – #74 Rasmus Asplund – #15 Jean-Sebastien Dea
#19 Jake McCabe – #4 Zach Bogosian
#62 Brandon Montour – #55 Rasmus Ristolainen
#6 Marco Scandella – #10 Henri Jokiharju
#35 Linus Ullmark (starter)
#40 Carter Hutton
Injured: Rasmus Dahlin, Matt Hunwick, Kyle Okposo, Vladamir Sobotka, Evan Rodrigues, Tage Thompson