For the third time in the past six weeks, the Toronto Maple Leafs dropped a game to the Buffalo Sabres by multiple goals as an uninspiring performance from Toronto dealt them their first regulation loss in nine games. 

The Leafs got goals from Timothy Liljegren and Alex Kerfoot, but a poor showing on the PK and a sleepy effort against a scrappy Sabres team led Toronto to drop points against Buffalo yet again. Auston Matthews was also held off the scoresheet and Mitch Marner’s point streak was snapped at 13. Overall, it was a night to forget.

Your game in 10:

1.   It felt like the Maple Leafs started the game on the penalty kill after Auston Matthews was sent off just 32 seconds in due to a questionable delay of game call, and that foreshadowed what was a lackluster performance from the PK.

It’s been a strange month of April from the PK — strong outings against Philadelphia, Tampa, Dallas, and Montreal intermixed with dips against Florida and Buffalo where the team conceded multiple power-play goals against.

The Panthers scored three with the man-advantage in that game and then the Sabres picked up two tonight on the PP. The first one came off a nice pass from Victor Olofsson to Kyle Okposo:

That’s a save you’d probably like your goalie to come up with in a perfect world, but I’m also not a fan of how easily the Leafs allowed the pass across. East-west passes are inherently dangerous in the way they make a goaltender have to move in the crease, and goal #1 of penalty kills should be to take away those lanes. The second goal was not cross-seam, but it was from below the goal line into the slot unobstructed:

I’m going to talk more about the Tuch/Thompson combo for Buffalo in a separate point, but this is not a great look for the Leafs‘ PK. Ilya Mikheyev didn’t put up any resistance to Alex Tuch’s speedy zone entry, Mark Giordano didn’t cut off a pass into a high-danger area, and Ilya Lyubushkin didn’t do much of anything to obstruct the shot and instead helped screen his own goaltender.

It’s not often that the Toronto Maple Leafs lose the special-teams battle in a game this season, but tonight was one of those nights thanks to a 2/4 PK effort and an o-fer PP.

2.   In between those two goals for Buffalo, the Leafs got one back to draw even for a time. This one is mostly the result of a stellar read by Timothy Liljegren, recognizing the awkward William Nylander shot was going to pinball off the endboards before banking his shot off the pads of Craig Anderson and in:

We’re in the “Sheldon Keefe tries every possible defensive pairing permutation” portion of the season, and the evidence is strong that Liljegren needs to be in the playoff lineup. Toronto is in a nice position when it comes to the defense, having eight NHL defensemen when Rasmus Sandin is healthy, which means a couple of decent (or better) players will be sitting in the press box. The decisions aren’t supposed to be easy, but Liljegren is playing really well right now.

Liljegren’s expected goal dominance has been well-documented in the Leafs-mediasphere by this point, but I think we’re getting to the point where the eye test and counting stats are coming into harmony with the analytics. Liljegren posted a 72.28% xGF% at even strength tonight per Evolving Hockey, which is the 24th time in the last 27 games that the Leafs have won the expected goals battle when Liljegren is on ice at 5v5. The goal was Liljegren’s fourth of the season, and he has now scored 16 points in his last 28 games, a 47-point pace per 82.

Liljegren is effective offensively and his defensive issues haven’t been as glaring the last little while. I think he has looked the best with Mark Giordano, but there are other combinations I’m interested in seeing Keefe try out. Regardless, I think Liljegren is playing his way into the playoff lineup. Here’s hoping that the Leafs recognize that and won’t be too spooked by Liljegren’s rookie status.

3.    As always, the focus of many in Scotiabank Arena tonight was on Auston Matthews after the great goalscorer notched his 51st in the last 50 games on Saturday night, but he was unable to find the back of the net tonight. The top line graded out fine analytically, but my takeaway from AM34’s performance tonight was it was one of the rare moments where you want Auston Matthews to shoot more.

Matthews leads the league in shots, yet had two different points at which I was screaming “SHOOT THE PUCK,” instead opting to try and force a pass to a covered teammate. Even more humorous is the fact that despite passing up those looks, Matthews had several chances and was tied for the team lead in shots on goal.

The rest of the line had their moments. Mitch Marner had a takeaway and a great pass to set up a chance for Ilya Mikheyev that was denied by Craig Anderson. Michael Bunting had a grade-A chance and managed to beat Anderson, but the puck rolled along the ice, hit the post, and stayed put in the blue paint on the wrong side of the goal line. It was really poor luck that no one on this top line managed to score a goal this evening.

4.   Where I didn’t think that bunch of Leafs were as good tonight was on the power play, however. The top line had its moments at 5v5, but the individual pieces disappointed at 5v4 in another empty PP performance.

Their first opportunity only lasted some 38 seconds before a high-sticking call on Morgan Rielly washed it out, but the next three attempts were not good enough. Through 4:17 of PP time in the first two periods, the Leafs registered a grand total of 0.1 expected goals in their favor, per Natural Stat Trick.

The top unit was not memorable in any way. The same could more or less be said about the second unit. It also didn’t help that they took another penalty while on the PP after Jason Spezza was called for a trip that was marginal at best.

This is the second straight game where the Leafs were empty on the power play and also the second consecutive one in which those PP chances were purposeless; they did little to threaten the opposition and there was not much flow or rhythm. I’m not reading much into it overall, but if you’re looking for reasons why Toronto lost this game, the power play is definitely up there.

5.    Speaking of poor showings involving Spezza, we have to talk about the fourth line. Outside of a small Wayne Simmonds-fueled charge a week ago, the fourth line has been really concerning for a couple of weeks now. Nick AbruzzeseColin Blackwell, and Spezza were three of Toronto’s five worst skaters in xGF% at even strength tonight, and it seems like night after night those names (plus Kyle Clifford and Simmonds, depending on who is in the lineup) are at the bottom of’s expected goals for percentage chart when you look up stats in-game.

They are not providing much of a spark offensively, and while it is far from the biggest of concerns (titles are rarely won and lost by the fourth line), I don’t know what the answer is beyond “hope the veterans are saving their energy for the playoffs.”

It is an entirely plausible answer given how well Spezza has played in the past two playoffs, but I can’t help but think this is an area where it hurts to be without Ondrej Kaše. With Kaše in the lineup, someone in the top nine is getting bumped down to the fourth line and the Leafs would be running a fourth line of say, Kaše-Blackwell-Spezza, with the ability to rotate different options in that veteran spot.

I’d feel much better about that line than the current version, which is Blackwell + a rookie who doesn’t look ready to make an NHL impact and/or one to two veterans who are on their last legs. With a healthy Kaše, the picture changes big time and that’s what really sucks about his latest concussion.

6.    I want to shout out the Sabres’ top line of Jeff Skinner, Tage Thompson, and Alex Tuch, although really this is a point about the whole team. That group played very well, producing a pair of goals for Buffalo, the first being the latter power-play goal clipped earlier and the second being this one off a magnificent pass by Tuch to Skinner:

Yowza. The analytics at 5v5 were not nearly as strong as the eye test for the Sabres’ top line, but they also did a good amount of damage on the power play. While that unit may not be the best defensively right now, I think they are a legitimate building block for the Buffalo franchise moving forward.

We’ve seen what Alex Tuch can do in Vegas (be a top-six NHL winger), Skinner has had his moments and is back in the 30-goal territory this season, and Tage Thompson might really have arrived. That line boasts speed, skill, and size, and it is helping restore respectability to the Sabres in the past six weeks.

Since the month of March began, Buffalo is 11-7-3. They’ve played six straight games against elite teams (two against Florida, two against Carolina, one against Tampa and Toronto) and managed to go 2-4, only losing one by more than two goals. The Sabres look so much more feisty than they did previously, and I thought the TSN broadcast described the Buffalo team well by using the term “tenacious.” They battled hard tonight, applying a ton of pressure on the forecheck. There is a good amount of quickness in the lineup, which is a bit surprising given how many big bodies are in their mix.

Compared to the two previous Toronto losses to Buffalo, I thought this was the one that the Sabres played their best in. The Leafs shoulder some of the blame, but I thought the Sabres played legitimately well and also got a good performance out of Craig Anderson. It seemed to me to be more a story of Buffalo playing well than Toronto playing badly for much of the game… until the goal I clipped above.

7.   After the Sabres went up 3-1, the level of play dipped off quite a bit for the Leafs and the fourth goal allowed was one of minimal effort. The Leafs were caught standing around as Rasmus Dahlin was allowed to shoot into essentially an empty net here:

Things generally got sloppy around this time for Toronto, although they did make one last good push, coming up short on it. Alex Kerfoot got a goal back, one that crossed the line by the tiniest of margins:

With the score cut to 4-2, Toronto stitched together a couple of good looks and perhaps one more going in could have reversed the trajectory. Again, Craig Anderson had another good effort for Buffalo against the Leafs, picking up win #306 in his long NHL career.

Anderson stopped 26 of 28 Toronto shots and saved 0.82 goals above expected in Evolving Hockey’s numbers. It’s not an instance of the Leafs getting goalie’d, but it was a commendable outing for the 40-year-old Buffalo netminder.

8.    In the other net, I thought Erik Källgren wasn’t great, but he also wasn’t disastrous. He saved 23 of 27 shots — which isn’t going to sparkle in the SV% numbers, and the GSAx numbers aren’t great, either — but he also didn’t give up any howlers.

The first three goals he allowed were all off of great passes to set up high-danger looks. You’d probably like him to stop at least one of those, but he also didn’t give up any true “bad” goals. Likewise, a goalie coach might nitpick and want Källgren to contest that fourth goal a little better — rather than being totally out of the crease — but even so, he isn’t stopping it.

After Källgren gave up the horrendous goal to Radko Gudas against the Panthers — majorly turning the tide in that game — I was very worried about the potential ramifications on the young goalie’s confidence moving forward. Giving up a goal like that in a big game can rattle the brain of an inexperienced netminder, but Källgren has managed to bounce back pretty well.

He was sharp against Montreal on Saturday, and while he wasn’t great today, he also has avoided giving up a repeat of the Gudas goal, which was the major concern. It also seems like the jumbo rebounds he was coughing up initially after his callup from the AHL have become less of an issue recently, which is a subtle improvement. My assessment of Källgren as a potentially decent NHL backup remains consistent for now.

9.   The last moment in the game that must be discussed was a shift to forget from William Nylander near the end. With the net empty and the Leafs trailing 4-2, Nylander slowpoked it back to touch up on an icing, losing a race seemingly out of a lack of effort, and then moments later was easily stripped of the puck by Rasmus Asplund, who sealed the game by hitting the back of the net:

Sheldon Keefe was not happy on the Toronto bench, and you can understand why. I didn’t think it was a particularly bad game from Nylander before that, but it is those sorts of perceived lack-of-effort plays that drive coaches and fans crazy.

I don’t want to castigate Nylander too much for what was truly a team-wide dud, but it just happens a little too often with the talented Swedish forward. If nothing else, that play was emblematic of a game that the Sabres seemed to want a lot more than the Leafs.

10.    Since the trade deadline, the Toronto Maple Leafs are 8-2-1. Their wins include Boston, Tampa, Florida, and Dallas, but the two regulation losses are to Buffalo and Montreal. The Leafs have lost in regulation 10 times since the start of February — twice to Vancouver, thrice to Buffalo, twice to Montreal, and then once each to Calgary, Nashville, and St. Louis. In other words:

What do we make of the Leafs being unable to beat the Sabres recently, or their struggles against bottomfeeder teams generally? We’re at the point of the season where this is definitely not a meme or an overreaction. There is plenty of data that Toronto is playing much better against playoff competition than the teams with the top lottery odds. This graph made its way around hockey Twitter today:

For the non-graphically inclined, while teams like Boston and Tampa have banked most of their point totals against non-playoff teams but been barely break-even against playoff teams, the Leafs are killer against playoff teams but haven’t massacred non-playoff teams like you’d expect, performing barely better against that subgroup.

The optimist’s take is that the Leafs are saving energy against lesser teams so they can be fully charged up when the games really matter. It’s hard to argue with how well they’ve played against the top Atlantic Division rivals (as well as Carolina) recently. On the other hand, Colorado and Florida have shown us that it’s not an either/or. It is possible to blast nearly every team you face.

Sheldon Keefe said as much in the postgame, pointing out that nights like tonight are why the Leafs will not catch the Panthers:

Keefe is not wrong. If you give the Leafs seven or eight free points that they’ve dropped against the Habs and Sabres, suddenly they’re right there against the Panthers among the league’s best. It is frustrating that that hasn’t been the case, but at the same time, it’s worth pointing out how good the Leafs are this season… and how good Florida is.

Toronto is on pace for 112 points, a very high total from a historical perspective. In a number of seasons, 112 could be enough to contend for the Presidents’ Trophy. It just so happens that the Panthers are on pace for 124 points(!!!!!!), which would tie the ’06 Red Wings for the sixth-highest total in NHL history and the third-most by a non-70s Habs team. In other words, the Leafs are extremely good this year, but the Panthers are historically good, and the duds against Buffalo are one reason the Leafs aren’t hitting that transcendent level.

Would it be nice to win more of those games? Yeah, but it’s hard for me to feel outraged that the Leafs are only on pace for 112 points. If fans had been told before the season that the Leafs would maintain such a point pace through 72 games, many would have been extremely happy, and I assume most would have believed that that total would be enough to win the division. It just so happens to not be the case this season.

That said, even if the formula to get those 112 points happens to be odd (beat the really good teams, lose to the really bad ones), it’s not a good enough reason to be devastated about a regular season this successful in my mind — especially when the playoffs are all any Leafs fan will remember about 2021-22 anyway.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Game Highlights: Sabres 5 vs. Leafs 2