After three wins on a four-game road trip, the Toronto Maple Leafs return home to face off against a Buffalo Sabres team that took three of four points in a back-to-back against Toronto in late November (7 p.m. ET TSN4).
The Sabres have gone 4-1-2 since the home-and-home against the Leafs. Like any team, they’ve had dips, but unlike Buffalo teams that started well in years past (at least so far), they’ve been able to crawl out of holes with solid team defense. Their underlying numbers are that of a low-event team — they rank 23rd and sixth in shot attempts for and against, respectively. Their unblocked shot rates in xG are 28th and 12th, respectively.
The biggest red flag when observing the Sabres’ numbers this season is their 5-on-5 scoring rate. While they’ve generated a 28th place 2.02 xGF/60 rate at 5-on-5, their GF/60 rate ranks 10th. While their shooting percentage at evens is high but not ludicrous at 8.8%, some regression could be in store here.
Their overall outlook offensively would be brighter with a formidable power play, but that area hasn’t been too impressive: They’re xG rate at 5-on-4 ranks 22nd and their overall efficiency is also below league-average at 18.7%.
On the Maple Leafs side of things, Trevor Moore is ready to return after approximately a month on the IR. Following a solid road win against the Oilers and a goal from Frederik Gauthier, the Leafs will keep #33 in the lineup and likely swap Dmytro Timashov out for Moore. On the back end, Tyson Barrie will be in the lineup despite looking questionable enough for the Leafs to recall Timothy Liljegren in case he couldn’t play.
Update (4:50 p.m.): Moore is out tonight after taking a bump in practice yesterday and informing the team of some discomfort this afternoon. It looks like Timashov will stay in next to Gauthier.
Spoke with Sheldon Keefe pre-game, and he said Trevor Moore will NOT return for #Leafs tonight. Was bumped in practice yesterday and informed team this afternoon after media initially spoke with Keefe that he wasn’t feeling right.
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) December 17, 2019
The goaltending matchup will feature Frederik Andersen (16-8-3, .921 Sv%, 4.9 GSAx) vs. Linus Ullmark (10-6-2, .915 Sv%, -2.9 GSAx).
The biggest challenge for the Leafs tonight is finding a better answer for Jack Eichel than what they’ve mustered in the season series thus far, but with the Hyman – Tavares – Marner line back rolling and the play of the Muzzin – Holl, the Leafs arguably have a more credible answer for elite forwards than they’ve had for much of the season.
By virtue of where the Leafs are in the standings (playing catch up due to a six-game losing streak preceding the Mike Babcock firing), a loss in a so-called four-point game versus a divisional rival is enough to all but undo the progress made on the road trip. The Leafs can’t afford two steps forward, one step back much longer as we approach the midway mark of the season; they have to sustain winning streaks and take regulation wins off of those ahead of them in the division standings.
Game Day Quotes
John Tavares on the Sabres and the similarities between their top line and Edmonton’s:
Certainly, there are some good similarities. I think the way we played, especially defensively, was good. We want to build off last week and, being at home, we want to keep the momentum going and obviously earn key points. We’ve got to be aware of their skill and their talent. They’re playing some good hockey and they’re competing hard, so it should be a good game
Tavares on Eichel:
He’s started to take a real step up in his play. I think he’s always been ultra-talented with his skating ability and puck handling. He’s such a dual-threat type of player. He’s really using his body now, I find, and really imposing himself on the game. Obviously, he’s playing with a lot of confidence and he’s one of the best players in the league.
Sheldon Keefe on if Saturday’s game is a good comparison for tonight:
Yeah, definitely. From a team perspective, facing any opponent, but also playing against an elite player like we will again tonight as well.
Keefe on using last change at home to get the matchup he wants against Jack Eichel’s line:
Even on the road when we didn’t have last change, the Tavares line with Muzzin and Holl were the guys we were trying to get out in those situations as much as possible. At the same time, we’re going to be cautious of but we’re not going to compromise our own flow and be mindful of that. When we have our own opportunities, whether it’s O-zone faceoffs and things of that nature, Matthews’ line will probably take those. We’ll trust our team structure and our team defense to play against anybody ,but most often you’ll see the Tavares group [against Eichel’s line].
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#88 William Nylander – #34 Auston Matthews – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#47 Pierre Engvall – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #65 Ilya Mikheyev
#41 Dmytro Timashov – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #19 Jason Spezza
#44 Morgan Rielly – #94 Tyson Barrie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #83 Cody Ceci
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Scratched: Martin Marincin, Timothy Liljegren, Pontus Aberg
Injured: Andreas Johnsson, Trevor Moore
Buffalo Sabres Projected Lines
#68 Victor Oloffson – #9 Jack Eichel – #23 Sam Reinhart
#53 Jeff Skinner – #71 Evan Rodrigues – #74 Rasmus Asplund
#13 Jimmy Vesey – #90 Marcus Johansson – #43 Conor Sheary
#28 Zemgus Girgensons – #22 Johan Larsson – #21 Kyle Okposo
#19 Jake McCabe – #55 Rasmus Ristolainen
#26 Rasmus Dahlin – #62 Brandon Montour
#6 Marco Scandella – #10 Henri Jokiharju
#35 Linus Ullmark (starter)
#40 Carter Hutton
Injured: Matt Hunwick, Vladamir Sobotka, Tage Thompson