Ryan O’Reilly scored a hat trick and Mitch Marner recorded five assists as the Maple Leafs’ absolutely dominant first period powered them to a 6-3 victory in Buffalo. 

Toronto was all over Buffalo out of the gate with their best period of the season, scoring four goals in just over 12 minutes and forcing a goalie change for the Sabres. From there on out, it was a race to finish the game, with Buffalo making a hard charge in the third but never getting within two goals before O’Reilly’s hat-trick-clinching empty-netter capped off a special night for the new Leaf and his line.

Your game in 10:

1.   What a start it was from the Maple Leafs in this game.

Just under four minutes into the game, a scrum in the neutral zone was pushed from John Tavares up ahead to Mitch Marner, who darted deep into the Sabres’ end and wrapped a wicked pass around Owen Power to Ryan O’Reilly, who fired his shot into the open net.

The ardently pro-Leafs crowd in Buffalo was fired up, and before some of them even sat back down, this line was at it again. Keefe left the 91-90-16 line out there for the ensuing faceoff, and 37 seconds later, the puck was back in the Buffalo net.

The Leafs broke in 2v1, Marner flipped the puck past Henri Jokiharju to O’Reilly, and the veteran center went forehand, backhand, and roofed it over the glove of Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen:

2.    That line still wasn’t done wreaking havoc.

Less than three minutes later, in possession on the wing, Mitch Marner fired it on net through traffic, with the bodies of Ryan O’Reilly and John Tavares parked in front. The shot went off UPL before Tavares turned around, jumped on the loose puck, and whacked it in.

Just over seven minutes into the game, the score was 3-0 Toronto and the Sabres didn’t know what hit them.

3.    Luukkonen’s nightmare evening continued five minutes later when the Leafs again burned the Sabres’ defense and set themselves up for a scoring opportunity.

A loose puck in the neutral zone was scooped up by Morgan Rielly, who spied Michael Bunting breaking free down the middle behind the Buffalo defense and hit him with a stretch pass. Bunting faded to the left before wiring the shot past Luukkonen.

That was the end of the night for Luukkonen as Craig Anderson replaced him in the Buffalo net after four goals against on 10 shots.  UPL did not make enough saves for the Sabres, but he also had no chance on the opening goal, had little chance on the third goal, and was hung out to dry against free-and-clear shooters on the second and fourth goals.

4.   The first period was as dominant of a period as any the Leafs have played all season. Their shooters found the twine four times, but that was only part of the story. Toronto came out of the gate with a ton of jump in their legs. Nearly every shift in the first eight or so minutes was entirely played out in the Buffalo half of the ice.

It didn’t matter which line was out there; the Leafs had their foot on the Sabres’ neck for minutes on end. With nine minutes remaining in the period, the shots were 6-0 Toronto, scoring chances were 6-2 Toronto, and the Leafs owned 80% of the expected goals per Natural Stat Trick.

The Leafs were terrific through the neutral zone, with their forwards slowing down the Sabres through center ice and their defensemen gapping up well to stonewall Buffalo on entries. Against a team as quick as the Sabres, the Leafs’ work rate and committed neutral-zone structure made them look like the much faster team in the opening stanza.

Bunting’s goal came off a Buffalo turnover after running into the teeth of the Leafs’ neutral-zone forecheck, with William Nylander forcing the turnover from behind. The Sabres didn’t start to generate any half-decent shifts until the waning moments of the period.

When it was all said and done, the first-period score sat at 4-0 Toronto, and somehow, it almost felt like an understatement of the Leafs’ dominance.

5.     In the second period, the balance of play began to shift towards Buffalo at 5v5, as you might expect in a game with such heavy score effects. The Leafs started to sit back a bit more and the Sabres finally got their game going.

Buffalo picked up their pace and managed to control the shot count 11-5 at 5v5, with scoring chances favouring the Sabres as well (11-8). Most of the shots in the period were perimeter chances that were not terribly threatening, but the territorial control was far more favourable to Buffalo in the middle frame.

The Sabres did generate one or two quality looks, piercing Toronto’s defense on a couple of occasions. Tage Thompson had a great chance early in the period that Ilya Samsonov shut down, and the Leafs goaltender made another good stop on Jokiharju.

Through 40 minutes, the Leafs were playing an excellent defensive game and Samsonov was sharp. In other words, the ship was cruising.

6.    Toronto added to their lead in the second period on the power play on one of two man-advantage opportunities — one in the second and one in the third, both of which were fabulous efforts.

The Leafs scored on the first one and were simply unlucky not to score on the other. The puck movement was orgasmic on the first opportunity, with the Leafs whipping it around and creating look after look. Anderson had already made multiple saves when John Tavares passed a loose puck in the slot over to William Nylander on the doorstep, where he flipped it bar down over Anderson, who was flailing on the ice.

For Willy, it was his 32nd tally of the season as he edges ever close to his career high of 34 set last season; he is projected to obliterate that mark if his current 45-goal pace holds up.

The second PP opportunity was just as effective as the first even if it didn’t end in a goal. The Leafs created several excellent looks that forced Anderson into phenomenal saves, and then a shot from the point was tipped off the post by Auston Matthews in the high slot.

7.   Trailing 5-0, the Sabres, to their credit, didn’t go away in the third period. The Leafs killed off a Sabres PP, but then Conor Timmins got himself caught in the neutral zone as the puck turned over, leading to a rush for Jack Quinn the other way. TJ Brodie needed to account for a possible pass on the developing 2v1, and the sharp-shooting Quinn ripped a shot by Samsonov at his near post.

The third period became a little more interesting after a second Buffalo goal arrived not long after. Alex Tuch picked up the puck at his own blue line, cut through the entire Leafs forward group at center ice, gained the zone, burst by Morgan Rielly, and fired a shot at Samsonov that beat him far side.

This was too easy of a goal to surrender on a number of fronts; no one in a Leaf sweater so much as touched Tuch through the neutral and defensive zones, and Samsonov was off his angle on the shot.

With 12 minutes to go, the Sabres were now threatening to make this a competitive finish.

8.    The Leafs were generally chasing the Sabres over the next five or so minutes, hanging onto their three-goal lead. The second power play came at a useful time to salt away two more minutes of the remaining time, although an insurance goal would’ve been better. Instead, the door remained slightly ajar, and the Sabres capitalized when Jeff Skinner got in behind Justin Holl and fired it by Samsonov.

With 3:31 remaining in the game, the Sabres were within two goals, and the collective tension of Leafs Nation was becoming palpable online. Tage Thompson’s shot hit Samsonov’s stick and then the upside of the Skinner goal was revealed: It brought Buffalo close enough to pull the goalie, allowing Ryan O’Reilly a chance at the hat trick.

Off a defensive-zone faceoff with over a minute to go, Marner flipped the puck out of the zone and down the ice. O’Reilly won the race before his backhander went off Dahlin and then trickled over the goal line.

They don’t draw pictures on the scoresheet. This goal clinched the hat trick for #90 with his first hatty since April 24, 2021, and it tied his career-high of four points in a game.

As for Marner, it was his fifth assist of the night(!), also a career-high for a single game. After tonight’s game, Marner is on pace for 28 goals and 72 assists for 100 points. That assist total would set a new career-high and tie Darryl Sittler’s 1978 season for the third most assists in a single season in club history (Doug Gilmour’s 1993 and 1994 campaigns hold the top two spots).

9.    Let’s talk about the lines momentarily. The big story of the game was clearly the dominance of the second line with Marner, O’Reilly, and Tavares; they were diligent about recovering pucks, read off of each other really well with the puck, and aggressively attacked the net.

The first line of Bunting, Nylander, and Matthews was solid, creating a goal and also conceding one against, although Matthews, in particular, looked a little subdued again tonight.

If there was one interesting takeaway from the top two lines, it was Keefe’s deployment of the O’Reilly line in the defensive zone for key draws, including one at the end of the first period when Buffalo was starting to string a few shifts together. When the lines are configured this way, it appears that line will be a go-to matchup trio.

As for the bottom six, I thought the fourth line of Alex Kerfoot, Noel Acciari, and Zach Aston-Reese was the stronger of the two lines for the third straight game since the trade.

The overall metrics from Natural Stat Trick don’t look too rosy for any line, but that is mostly the result of score effects since the Leafs were up 4-0 less than 25% of the way into the game.  That dynamic makes the game hard to read too much into as a result, but I thought Acciari was noticeable yet again, throwing hits all over the ice (he was credited with six tonight) and seemingly rubbing off on Aston-Reese’s own physical game. When the score was close/competitive early on, the fourth line was winning its shifts consistently.

As for the third line of David KämpfPierre Engvall, and Calle Järnkrok, they did grade out as the team’s worst xGF% at 5v5 line for the second straight game, which feels notable, but there was nothing that stood out too much about their game in either direction. Järnkrok did have a great shift late killing off time remaining in the game, and Engvall created a couple of rush chances — one with Kerfoot that drew a penalty and one with O’Reilly that nearly resulted in a goal.

10.    Let’s close on Ilya Samsonov, who had a bit of an odd game — a tale of the opening 40 minutes vs. the final period.

The first 40 were superb from the Leafs’ netminder. He wasn’t tested that much as the team defense in front of him was dialed in, but when called on, he answered the bell.

In the final frame, he had a fighting chance on each of the three Sabres goals, particularly the Tuch and Skinner goals. Just one stop on the three might be enough to call it a “good” night, but all three got by him, and it ends up looking below average with a .909 save percentage.

Perhaps Samsonov’s stamina is still not quite 100% after the illness given his last two starts. If that’s the case, he will definitely benefit from a couple of days off before facing Minnesota on Friday. The whole team likely will after playing three games in four days following the huge trade. They’ll finally have a couple of days of practice to fully integrate the new players, not that they haven’t hit the ground running for the most part.

Nitpicks about the third-period goaltending and close-out effort aside, two points on the road under those scheduling circumstances, against an upstart Buffalo squad pushing for a playoff berth in a game that the Leafs completely dominated until the score effects set in, is an “A” effort.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts