This was a big game for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Before puck drop, Chris Cuthbert noted that this is the first meeting between Toronto and Buffalo in over three years where the Leafs are looking up at the Sabres in the standings. And the Leafs came out with an urgency to match the occasion: They outshot Buffalo 11-5 in the first period and their 1-0 lead after the period was extremely generous to Buffalo. It easily could have been a three- or four-goal lead.
It was also important that the win came in regulation – they had yet to do that to Buffalo, and in general, they have struggled against teams in their division this season (although I think some of the struggles vs. Montreal are due to getting them on the second half of back-to-backs). Nonetheless, this was a step in the right direction and the kind of important regulation win the team needs to ensure they are playing in the playoffs come springtime.
To the game in ten:
1. Generally speaking, the Leafs dominated this game from start to finish. The final ten minutes was a bit of a fire drill, but it shouldn’t take away from how handily the team outplayed the Sabres for large stretches and the long stretches of offensive zone time possession the team generated. Each line had at least a few shifts of extended offensive-zone pressure. The fourth line chipped in two goals and so did the Matthews line, but John Tavares probably could have had at least a hat trick on his own. He put four shots on net, Marner had three shots on net, and Hyman had two shots. On one play, Marner broke through and tried to squeeze a pass through for a backdoor tap in where I thought he could have kept and shot it. Marner was dancing in his usual way throughout the night, though, and it was a welcomed sight:
Marner keeps the play alive and nearly converts the pass. #LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/wsJmPeSLAW
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) December 18, 2019
2. I noted in Monday’s Notebook that Dmytro Timashov has been productive in fourth-line minutes playing with not-very-talented linemates. He made a great play against the Oilers leading to a goal on a generally nice return game for him, and he followed that up with another impactful night, driving through the middle of the ice to create space for Frederik Gauthier’s goal (now on a two-game goal-scoring streak, by the way), and then finishing off a beautiful breakaway to display some of his skill. Timashov didn’t get an assist on the Gauthier goal, but he made all the difference on the play and it was a shame he didn’t get rewarded with a point for that. He played only seven minutes on the night, but if he keeps this up, you could argue he deserves to start seeing that number grow at least a little bit. What really hurts his ice time is the fact that he doesn’t have a special teams role.
3. Trevor Moore was expected to return for this game, which was supposed to mean Timashov would be a healthy scratch. It’ll be interesting to see if that remains if Timashov keeps this up, while Gauthier is also scoring and making plays. That turns the attention to Jason Spezza, who was quiet again on the night and played under eight minutes. It marks the fifth straight game that he hasn’t hit the 10-minute mark in ice time and this is the second straight game he hasn’t recorded a shot on net. Before his current three-game pointless streak, he had a run of five points in six games, so the law of averages says he is evening out a little bit here.
4. Auston Matthews’ response to his season-low 14:34 of ice time: four shots on goal, two highlight-reel goals, and 19:29 of ice time. He was dangerous offensively, had some lapses defensively (on their first shift of the night he almost got scored on as he was not covering the slot well), and they played primarily against the Jeff Skinner line, who outshot attempted them. That said, the line had some really creative offensive sequences, like this one:
A great passing sequence from the Matthews line turns into a nice look. #LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/GAfSqyRPWS
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) December 18, 2019
5. The Leafs have started using their third line in more two-way situations, which was on display in Edmonton as the team wanted nothing to do with matching up Matthews against McDavid. On this night, the forward Alexander Kerfoot played the second most 5v5 minutes against was Jack Eichel (although generally, he went up against the Sabres third line). It is becoming a bit more of a two-way unit for the Leafs.
Ilya Mikheyev was the one on to ice the game, breaking up the Sabres attack and scoring the empty netter. Earlier in the season, we were wondering what the third line was actually supposed to be, and now it seems to be taking shape. Mikheyev did have a 2-on-0 rush with Tyson Barrie that resulted in a great save where he really telegraphed that pass (needs to add a fake in there). It was a great save, but his body language made it obvious he was passing, too.
6. Another low ice time night for Travis Dermott, who was on for only 13:52 of action. The next lowest ice time for a defenseman was Tyson Barrie’s 19:11. Dermott is clearly the sixth defenseman on this team. He isn’t getting any special teams ice time and played primarily against the Sabres fourth line. On one hand, he might still be impacted by missing the beginning of the season, but on the other hand, it would really help the Leafs for him to take a step. This is his third year in the league (although none have been a true full season), and he has over 120 games on his resume.
7. I still have literally no idea what John Tavares did on his penalty late in the second period. They showed a replay and Jamie McLennan had a very awkward pause and hesitation before saying there wasn’t much there, but you could tell he was really thinking, “I saw nothing.” It’s even more noteworthy because the Sabres scored on that power play. Suddenly, a game that was cruising along nicely is 3-1 and Buffalo has some life. On the goal, Morgan Rielly had a perfect screen on Frederik Andersen while covering nobody. To the Leafs credit, they scored shortly after to regain the three-goal lead.
8. We generally try not to fixate on the officiating on this website, but for this game, it would be difficult not to. A little after that Buffalo power-play goal, Kyle Okposo got away with a clear boarding on Travis Dermott (who was banged up) and the Sabres went down the ice and scored moments later. It’s just a bad missed call, and frankly, from the Leafs perspective, it was disappointing that nobody stepped in on that hit with a response. Sometimes that kind of response can be overblown, but I thought that hit was in the category of needing someone to step in there.
Looks like the officials were out to lunch on that hit from behind, or had blinders on. Shame on them.
— Marietta Dubas (@grammadubie) December 18, 2019
9. Morgan Rielly had an excellent assist on Matthews’ first goal of the night and looks much more active in general lately. His skating looks better (possibly a result of getting healthy?), and he finished the night with an assist, two shots on net, two hits, and three blocked shots. On Matthews’ second goal, he created the space by joining the rush and driving the net, which pushed the defense back and opened up space for the second wave of attack.
That said, on the Sabres 4-3 goal, he had a very questionable step up just outside the defensive zone to try to throw a hit on Kyle Okposo (possibly a response as the hit on Dermott), completely whiffed, and it left the Leafs down a man on the offensive rush that Buffalo proceeded to score on. When Okposo was shooting the puck into the empty net, Rielly was just getting back to the slot.
10. Jake Muzzin led all Leafs in ice time at 23:28 (Morgan Rielly was next at 21:07) and had a crunching hit on a Sabre trying to gain the zone in the final few minutes while they were trying to tie the game. He recorded five hits on the night (plus a shot on goal and three blocked shots). He played over 15 minutes of 5v5 hockey against Jack Eichel (and was handily out-shot attempted at 9-17). Interestingly, I had not seen this before, but on Twitter, James Mirtle noted he’s definitely playing hurt – I will say that Muzzin has looked slow and has really only looked good against slower teams of late:
He's definitely playing hurt
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) December 18, 2019
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts
Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts