The Maple Leafs will kick off the season series tonight against a Sabres team mired in a seven-game losing slide, but matchups between the QEW rivals are rarely straightforward affairs for the Leafs (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
A 1-3-0 record against Buffalo last season included losses by 5-2, 5-2, and 5-1 scorelines in the final month of the season after a 5-4 Leafs win to start the season series in November. No matter how poorly the Sabres were playing entering the game, they always seemed to save their best for the Leafs, who conceded far too many goals over the four contests.
As much as you typically need to throw out the season stats entering these Leafs-Sabres games, the Leafs are generally playing sound defensive hockey — eighth in goals against, fifth in shots against — and are getting good goaltending (ninth in save percentage over all situations) but are looking for solutions on the offensive side of the rink.
Even with the team remaining in the bottom 10 in the league in 5v5 offense after playing its ninth(!) game of the season with one or fewer 5v5 goals scored vs. New Jersey, Sheldon Keefe will be sticking with the exact same lineup from the last two games, which means Nick Robertson remains on the sidelines again tonight. This current lineup did produce the Leafs‘ most prolific offensive game of the season in Pittsburgh earlier in the week when it scored a season-high four 5v5 goals.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on Buffalo’s 3-1-0 record against the Leafs last season and why his team struggled against the Sabres last season:
Each season is new and each team is different, but we certainly talked about the fact that we didn’t do well against this team last year for sure. We would like to get off to a good start in the season series tonight.
When we looked at it, there were times we didn’t capitalize on our chances. There were times we didn’t defend well enough. They have really good players. It felt and seemed like we got their best game every time we played them. We certainly didn’t have ours. All of those things combine.
They have very good players. When you give them an opportunity, they can make you pay for it. That is what happened a lot in terms of our defensive play. Even the wins that we did get were kind of adventurous and we had to find our way through crazy games to make it happen.
With how we are playing of late now, we are set up well to continue to do a good job defensively. We have been talking about a push on offense and we want that to happen.
When we look at this team and the challenges, it is pretty similar to Jersey in a lot of ways. The size of some of their top people is a little different, but they are a young team with lots of skill. They are coming at you on the rush and making plays in the offensive zone. A lot of our defensive plan is quite similar to Jersey.
Keefe on Nick Robertson remaining out of the lineup:
It is a daily discussion with us. When he is not playing, it is making sure we are continuing to work with him, whether it is the development staff or our own coaching staff. You are monitoring his daily activity, his workload, and what he is getting out of it.
We had a very brief practice yesterday, but I thought he was outstanding in the practice. That is something you are looking for: Does he still have the energy? Does he still have the life? Is he still pushing? You are watching that.
In terms of our lineup, we are looking for some consistency as we’ve talked about. In terms of whether he is here or with the Marlies or whatever, that’s not my decision; it’s an organizational decision. He is here. We want to continue to work with him and have him around our group.
If it is not a daily discussion in terms of wanting him in and seeing that he is guy who can help us, then maybe it is a different conversation, but as for right now, he is here. We want to continue to work with him.
As I mentioned previously, I don’t like to have our guys sit too long — any of them, but particularly young players. That is part of why he is in that daily discussion, but I think it is important for us to give our current look more time to grow.
It is a daily decision and something we will look at again after tonight’s game.
Sabres head coach Don Granato on Buffalo’s 3-1-0 record against the Leafs last season:
Any time you play a team as skilled as the Leafs, if you’re going to be successful, you are absolutely going to say you got some breaks and you’re absolutely going to say you played hard. We need to play hard and make our breaks.
Granato on his team’s mentality after seven straight losses:
I like where we are at. It has been a stretch that has challenged us. The challenge with a young group is good. If we were a group of 30-year-old guys, it would be devastating. They would say, “Oh no, here we go again,” and compound any problem. With young guys, they see opportunities for growth and resolution. They see they can do it.
And they can. Young talented guys get better through adversity. This will make us better. I think our guys are regaining that perspective. I think it took us out of it psychologically. We wanted to go into desperation mode. I think we have checked out of that and have a much better mindset to play aggressively and play with better energy.
We were playing quite a bit in the last few games with hesitation and fear of making a mistake. This league will run right over you when you do that. I like where we are at today. We will see.
Granato on Ilya Lybushkin’s contributions:
Boosh has been great. We have asked him to do a lot without Samuelsson and Jokiharju in the lineup four or five games into the year. He had to move up to the second pairing on D. He did a great job, and he got injured himself. He had to play through an injury.
I think he is still nursing a little bit. He has done everything we asked and more as a competitive guy and a great teammate. We just hope, as we get healthier, the whole group back there can have an opportunity to just play the game instead of trying to do more than they have to in order to compensate for injuries.
We are very happy to have him and look forward to the road ahead with him.
Granato on first-overall selection Owen Power’s first 17 games in the NHL:
He has been very, very good and consistent in learning and applying in a very short duration. He absorbs what is happening and acclimates and re-acclimates very quickly. It is nice for him to have Rasmus Dahlin, who is really, really playing well.
Rasmus went through lots and lots of challenges a year ago today. I took a lot of questions about what was wrong with Rasmus. He just lived the challenge of being the young guy in the NHL. I think he helps Owen quite a bit. Owen helps himself quite a bit. Two impressive guys that work well together.
Granato on Rasmus Dahlin’s breakout season so far (19 points in 16 games):
It is all starting to come together — all the hard work he has put in over his career, all the adversity and challenges that took him out of it psychologically for years. In this league, you can get in your own head really, really quickly. It is tough to get out maybe until an offseason.
For Rasmus, he has an immense amount of experience, both positive and negative, that he actually puts in a great perspective. He is a competitor that trains hard. He has made himself bigger, stronger, and faster. He studies the game. He’s made himself better.
He broke the threshold. He now knows he can be an elite player at any moment in any game. He has the hindsight and wisdom of lots of experience, both good and bad.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #64 David Kämpf – #62 Denis Malgin
#47 Pierre Engvall – #29 Pontus Holmberg – #19 Calle Järnkrok
#44 Morgan Rielly – #18 Jordie Benn
#55 Mark Giordano – #3 Justin Holl
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #37 Timothy Liljegren
Starter: #30 Matt Murray
#50 Erik Källgren
Extras: Nick Robertson
Injured: TJ Brodie, Jake Muzzin, Ilya Samsonov
Buffalo Sabres Projected Lines
#53 Jeff Skinner – #72 Tage Thompson – #89 Alex Tuch
#22 Jack Quinn – #24 Dylan Cozens – #77 John Jason Peterka
#19 Peyton Krebs – #37 Casey Mittlestadt – #71 Victor Olofsson
#74 Rasmus Asplund – #8 Riley Sheahan – #29 Vinnie Hinostroza
#25 Owen Power – #26 Rasmus Dahlin
#23 Mattias Samuelsson* – #10 Henri Jokiharju
#78 Jacob Bryson – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
*out, replacement is a game-time decision
Starter: #1 Ukko-Pekka Luukonen
#41 Craig Anderson
Injured: Mattias Samuelsson, Kyle Okposo, Eric Comrie