Coming off a big win over the Oilers, the Maple Leafs will attempt to sweep the three-game QEW season series tonight against a Sabres team that has lost four straight (7:30 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
It has not been a fun month so far for the Buffalo Sabres. Since losing 5-2 to the dead-last Columbus Blue Jackets on the last day of February, the Sabres have only one win to hang their hats on — a penalty-filled 5-3 win over the Lightning 10 days ago. If you’re a Sabres fan, you’re probably more concerned about the pair of six-goal losses the team has suffered just this month in the form of a 7-1 loss to Boston and a 10-4 loss to Dallas this past Thursday.
In both of those losses, the Sabres only gave up one goal to the opposition’s power play. In fact, they haven’t given up more than a single goal in any game at 5-on-4 since the middle of February. It’s even strength where they’ve struggled more as of late; with a 6-6-1 record in the last month, the Sabres have given up more goals at evens (40) than any other team and have only managed to earn 44.5% of the xG in that timeframe.
The Sabres will benefit from the return of Alex Tuch tonight as it appears he’ll make his return to the lineup after missing their last eight games, which will be a big boost to their offense and allow them to return to some more familiar combos at forward. They didn’t take any line rushes this morning, but it’s likely Don Granato will have Tuch back on his top line with Tage Thompson and Jeff Skinner.
That line has played over 500 minutes together this season, with all three forwards topping the 60-point mark already, while Thompson has emerged as an elite goal scorer having already topped the 40-goal mark over a week ago.
While it may not jump off the page, the Sabres’ second line — which they’ve kept together in recent games despite Tuch’s absence — has been decently productive offensively this season. Perhaps the least experienced top-six trio in the league, rookies JJ Peterka and Jack Quinn take a back seat to the most experienced player on the line, third-year center Dylan Cozens. The former seventh overall pick has become a high-end transition threat as a carrier and playmaker, sitting in the 95th percentile or above in possession carries, entry passes, and possession zone exits while sitting fifth on the team in points with 55 (25, 30) in 64 games.
On the Leafs‘ side of things, it was confirmed by Sheldon Keefe that the coaching staff will stick with 11 forwards and seven defensemen again tonight. The next-up forward right now would be Alex Steeves, who was recalled from the Marlies again yesterday, but the team’s interest in fully integrating Erik Gustafsson and future-proofing the blue line — the former Caps defenseman would play a more significant role if there’s an injury on the back end — takes precedence for the time being.
Keefe mentioned Ryan O’Reilly’s injury as another part of the equation for continuing with the imbalanced setup. It begs the question: What would the plan be in an imaginary world where O’Reilly is ready to return tomorrow? Zach Aston-Reese was the odd man out before O’Reilly’s broken finger, but his trio with David Kampf and Noel Acciari has been a go-to for Keefe the last couple of games.
As they continue to throw out different looks, the Leafs‘ defense will look similar to how they ended Saturday’s game against Edmonton. Sheldon Keefe mentioned that he feels comfortable with Dean Chynoweth’s adjustments during the second period whereby he moved TJ Brodie back with Morgan Rielly and shifted Jake McCabe to the left of Justin Holl. McCabe and Brodie, in particular, were leaned on at five-on-five once the lead belong to Toronto on Saturday; those two finished with close to five minutes more ice time than other Leafs defenseman at evens.
With games on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday this week — the first two of which are against high-end opponents Colorado and Carolina — Keefe has opted to go with Matt Murray as his starter again tonight. Murray has put together a decent enough season statistically if it wasn’t for his highly-frequent trips to the IR. On the season, he is 12-6-2 with a .905 Sv% while sporting the best high-danger save percentage of his career at .858%. In addition to a run of good health, he needs to find a little more comfortability and success on home ice, where he is currently a .883 despite winning five of his seven starts at the SBA.
Between the pipes at the opposite end will be the oldest player in the league, Craig Anderson. Anderson has been on the bench for most of the Sabres’ ugly performances as of late and has kept his numbers quite solid on the season. He has lost his last two games, giving up three goals to the Oilers and four in the end-of-February loss to the Blue Jackets, but he has still maintained a .500 record. Anderson is 9-9-2 on the season with a .918 save percentage.
Head to Head: Sabres vs. Leafs
In the season-to-date statistics, the Leafs hold the advantage over the Sabres in three out of five offensive categories and four out of five defensive categories.
Game Day Quotes
Noel Acciari on complementing the Leafs‘ best forwards:
You see all these guys scoring goals and you want to join in on it, but at the same time, for me, it might not happen every night. I want to be able to contribute in different aspects, whether it’s defense, hits, or blocked shots. I think our line has kind of got a mix of everything, so we’re going to give you something different every night.
Acciari on playing with David Kampf and Zach Aston-Reese:
I didn’t know [Kampf] at all, other than just playing against him. I think [ZAR, Kampf] and I mesh well. It’s simple and we know what we’re going to do. That’s what makes it easy for us to play with each other.
Acciari on Michael Bunting’s pest qualities:
Playing against him, you want to go and hit him, but he’s so hard to hit. In the playoffs, you need those guys who go to the dirty areas and get under guys’ skin. That’s a big part of the playoffs: just playing hard and getting guys on the other team to take penalties.
Acciari on the Leafs’ big three up front:
It’s a special group with what they can do with the puck. Watching it firsthand, just their work ethic [is impressive]. You might not notice it playing against them, but playing with them, it’s second to none.
It’s not just [Marner], but [Nylander] and [Matthews], too. You’re never afraid that they’re not going to go get [the puck]. Willy’s done it multiple times in overtime where he’s picked a guy’s stick. Mitchy doesn’t give up on the puck, and Matthews is all over the place.
I get a front-row seat for it, and it’s fun to watch.
Sheldon Keefe on the Sabres’ strengths:
Another elite offensive team. We’ve been playing a lot of these types of teams lately. The way we’ve been talking about how we have to defend the middle of the ice, be responsible with the puck — all those things are very much at the top of the list here against this team.
Keefe on Tage Thompson:
He can score on the rush, beat you one-on-one, and tight to the net. He can also score from distance. Those are the guys that tend to separate themselves from the pack, so all that has come together for him.
He’s another guy where if you make mistakes around him — whether that’s with the puck or off the puck — he can make you pay.
I remember watching some of the clips of him in the AHL when he first came down to Rochester. You’re not used to seeing guys shoot it like that in the American League. He was still kind of finding his way, but I knew he had that in him with the skillset and coordination. The older he’s gotten, the confidence has gone a long way.
Keefe on Noel Acciari:
The way that he plays in terms of being competitive and physical on the puck can only help bring the group together and make them more competitive themselves and step up their physicality. Also, just having another guy you can put on the ice at any time against any opponent allows [me to be more versatile].
I look at the other night as an example. You go down against Edmonton, and they were trying to get Matthews versus McDavid quite a bit. We needed to change that matchup to get Auston free and get our best offensive people playing against the third and fourth lines. In order to do that — especially against that calibre of player — you need guys that you can trust that can get you through some of those other matchups.
We switched the matchups midway through the second period and kind of flipped it, and we’re still able to contain their best people yet our offensive guys can really start to push the pace.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#88 William Nylander – #28 Sam Lafferty – #19 Calle Järnkrok
#58 Michael Bunting – #91 John Tavares
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #64 David Kämpf – #52 Noel Acciari
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#22 Jake McCabe – #3 Justin Holl
#55 Mark Giordano – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#56 Erik Gustafsson
Starter: #30 Matt Murray
#34 Ilya Samsonov
Extras: Wayne Simmonds, Conor Timmins, Alex Steeves
Injured: Ryan O’Reilly, Nick Robertson, Jake Muzzin, Victor Mete
Buffalo Sabres Projected Lines
#53 Jeff Skinner – #72 Tage Thompson – #89 Alex Tuch
#77 John Jason Peterka – #24 Dylan Cozens – #22 Jack Quinn
#12 Jordan Greenway – #37 Casey Mittlestadt – #71 Victor Olofsson
#28 Zemgus Girgensons – #19 Peyton Krebs – #21 Kyle Okposo
#26 Rasmus Dahlin – #38 Kale Clague
#25 Owen Power – #10 Henri Jokiharju
#61 Riley Stillman – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
Starter: #41 Craig Anderson
#1 Ukko-Pekka Luukonen
Injured: Mattias Samuelsson