After officially clinching a playoff spot with their win over Montreal, the Maple Leafs will enter the final 10 games of their regular season tonight when they welcome the Buffalo Sabres — and the debuting 2021 first-overall pick Owen Power — to Scotiabank Arena (7 p.m. EST, TSN4)
In his two seasons at the University of Michigan in the NCAA’s Big 10 Conference, the 6-foot-6, 215-pound Owen Power has tallied 48 points in 59 games. With Rasmus Dahlin having a career-best season offensively while averaging a career-high 23:59 of ice time per game over all situations, the Sabres are hoping they have added a second future stud to their blue line as they chart their path towards a return to respectability.
The Sabres have decided to pair the 19-year-old Mississauga native with Henri Jokiharju, who has been Dahlin’s primary partner this season with over 660 minutes played together. That means Dahlin will be forced to his offside on a pairing with 22-year-old rookie Mattias Samuelsson.
On the young Sabres roster, 24-year-old giant Tage Thompson is leading the way with 32 goals in 70 games for the Sabres. Last season could have been a breakout one for Thompson, but he sustained a major shoulder injury in November 2020 and missed the rest of the season recovering from surgery. Now healthy and playing a big role under his former U.S. national development team coach Don Granato, Thompson hasn’t looked back.
He started the year off somewhat slow before scoring 8-goals-in-14-games during November. The last few months have seen him reach new heights in production with 11 goals and eight assists over his last 20 games while becoming a central figure on the Sabres’ power play, where he has eight goals this season.
Thompson has tallied three goals and five points in the Leafs and Sabres’ three meetings this season, with Buffalo currently carrying the edge in the season series at 2-1-0. With Power debuting in his hometown and the Sabres treating these games as the closest thing to playoffs for them this season, the Maple Leafs should have plenty of reason to get up for this one — and they should be motivated to exact some revenge after the Heritage Classic loss a month ago (Auston Matthews, in particular… look out!).
Navigating a busy finish to the regular season, the Leafs are managing some rest and minor injuries at the moment. Jake Muzzin will miss tonight as he doesn’t feel “100%,” while Jack Campbell will back up again while he deals with a minor injury unrelated to the rib injury that forced him out of the lineup for most of March.
After missing the last two games as a healthy scratch, Timothy Liljegren will return tonight in Muzzin’s absence. Liljegren was playing some of his best hockey of the season next to Mark Giordano before Jake Muzzin’s return forced a reshuffle of the defense pairs and left him out of the lineup for a couple of games. He’ll jump back into the mix next to Morgan Rielly this time — a pairing with mixed results earlier in the season — as the Leafs coaching staff takes a fresh look at Giordano – Ilya Lyubushkin while re-uniting Justin Holl with TJ Brodie.
Getting set for his fourth NHL game tonight is Nick Abruzzese, who will replace Wayne Simmonds on the fourth line.
The starting goalies tonight will be Erik Källgren and Craig Anderson. The veteran Anderson was sharp in his team’s 5-2 win at the outdoor game in Hamilton. The 40-year-old is 14-11-2 this season with a .899 save percentage.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on whether he’s begun to rest players after clinching a playoff spot:
I think whether we clinched or not… I mean, we’ve been having those conversations before the last little bit about how we’re going to handle things here. Having conversations with players, our group’s been feeling pretty good.
It just so happens we’ve come out of it over the last few days with some minor things, so it’s about managing that. We’ll continue to monitor that day to day — [We have] two back-to-backs remaining here. We’ll see how that all shakes out, but we definitely want to be mindful of how the group is feeling.
Keefe on whether it’s more difficult to give rest and/or reduced minutes to veteran players:
The conversations with the veterans are probably harder than anyone else. As an example, you look out on the ice right now, and Mark Giordano is the only defenseman on the ice skating. That’s because he feels that — in particular at his age — the more he skates, the better it feels. The more time away he takes, the body doesn’t feel so good, and it takes time to get it going.
The older players, [Spezza] is the same way. Thornton was the same way. These guys want to keep moving and it takes them longer to get fired back up again. Those conversations with those types of guys are difficult, but we have to be smart about it but mindful of how they feel at the same time.
Maybe it’s more about managing the minutes versus giving them actual days or nights off.
Keefe on Mark Giordano’s message to him regarding rest down the stretch:
In Giordano’s case, we’re still getting to know him, but the conversations I’ve had with him about this very thing — about how he feels about days off and practices off — were that he wants no part of it because he feels that actually a detriment to him in terms of how he feels and functions on the ice.
Keefe on what it’s been like to watch Auston Matthews ascend to another level of dominance this season:
It’s just been so fun to watch and to watch how our team has embraced it. We talked about it the other day — he gets 50, and he does it here on home ice. We go out on the road for four games and come back, and he’s sitting at 56. He gets his 50th goal in 50 games — and that’s great — but seconds later, he shoots another one in the net.
Keefe on what he’s seen from Owen Power while watching Matthews Knies and Nick Abruzzese in the NCAA:
Just super talent — size, skill, poise. A lot of similarities to Rasmus Dahlin in terms of how they move and the presence that they have on the ice. He’s another exciting young player for them to bring into the fold.
Sabres head coach Don Granato on Auston Matthews’ competitiveness:
You know, it’s actually great you bring that up. Having been with him and known him for as long as I have, I do know that. You know he was pretty ticked off at the end of last game, and I’m sure he’s carried that right into puck drop tonight. And he’s hot.
It’s a combination that I’ve been on the other side of a lot and very familiar with it. You know how to be on the other side. I can tell you it’s going to be a challenge.
He’s got a burn to play. He does not like not succeeding. I’ve seen him be that intense over the years.
Granato on whether he saw this type of potential in a younger Matthews:
Nothing surprises me with him. One of the biggest signs [of his dominance] is there are not many players where his peer group, when he would touch a puck, the entire bench would start to lean forward to watch. That doesn’t happen very often.
The internal drive, the athleticism — you could go on and on. It’s no surprise to me that he’s doing what he’s doing.
Granato on managing Owen Power in his debut game:
I’ve watched him enough over the years and gotten to know him enough that there has to be a trust from my side. He needs games like this. He needs environments like this. The more we can get him in situations like this, the faster his acclamation will be. A lot of the time, we say development, but in this case, it’s acclimation.
First Round Matchup Odds
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #91 John Tavares – #15 Alex Kerfoot
#88 William Nylander – #64 David Kampf – #47 Pierre Engvall
#26 Nick Abruzzese – #11 Colin Blackwell – #19 Jason Spezza
#44 Morgan Rielly – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#78 T.J. Brodie – #3 Justin Holl
#55 Mark Giordano – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
Starter: #50 Erik Källgren
#36 Jack Campbell
Extras: Wayne Simmonds, Kyle Clifford, Jake Muzzin
LTIR: Petr Mrazek, Ondrej Kase, Rasmus Sandin
Buffalo Sabres Projected Lines
#53 Jeff Skinner – #72 Tage Thompson – #89 Alex Tuch
#74 Rasmus Asplund – #37 Casey Mittelstadt – #71 Victor Olofsson
#96 Anders Bjork – #24 Dylan Cozens – #29 Vinne Hinostroza
#28 Zemgus Girgensons – #19 Peyton Krebs – #21 Kyle Okposo
#23 Mattias Samuelsson – #26 Rasmus Dahlin
#25 Owen Power – #10 Henri Jokiharju
#78 Jacob Bryson – #45 Casey Fitzgerald
Starter: #41 Craig Anderson
#31 Dustin Tokarski
Injuries: Drake Caggiula, Malcolm Subban