Conor Timmins was the shining star tonight for the Toronto Maple Leafs in a 5-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres.
The Leafs got out to a pretty quick start in the first period, out-shooting the Sabres 14-4 and scoring the game’s opening goal. After a power play came up empty, John Klingberg found Sam Lafferty entering the offensive zone with a stretch pass. Lafferty entered, took a shot, recovered his own rebound, and passed to Matthew Knies, who teed up Conor Timmins for a blast to make it 1-0 Toronto.
The Sabres tied it off a nice feed from Dylan Cozens to Jérémy Davies sliding down the slot, where the Buffalo defenseman’s shot beat Martin Jones. The game was tied 1-1 after one, but the score did not reflect the pro-Leafs tilt to the opening stanza.
The second period featured the major swing moment in the game: a big save by Martin Jones on a Dylan Cozens breakaway was followed by a Sabres PP that saw Toronto pick up a short-handed tally and another goal moments after its expiration to take control of the game.
William Lagesson blocked a shot and fed a pass to Matthew Knies, who deked the defenseman and passed to Sam Lafferty, who finished in tight for the SHG. A few moments later, Conor Timmins’ stretch pass found Max Domi coming out of the box for a breakaway, and Domi buried it behind Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
Buffalo did get one back on a Jokiharju seeing-eye shot from the point through traffic, a shot that Martin Jones was unable to pick up.
Toronto nearly scored early in the third period when John Tavares set up Nick Robertson with a neat pass, but Robertson’s shot clanged off the iron. The Leafs restored their two-goal lead thanks to Conor Timmins, who scooped up a loose puck in the neutral zone, slithered into the offensive zone, walked down the wall, and fed Kyle Clifford on the backdoor for an easy tap in to make it 4-2, a lead the Leafs carried comfortably into the final minute.
Pontus Holmberg narrowly missed an empty netter, but a Sabres penalty put Toronto on the power play as the seconds ticked away and Timmins converted with a one-time blast teed up by Easton Cowan to round out the 5-2 scoreline.
– We have to start with Conor Timmins, whose 2-2-4 evening was the story of the night. Timmins is in a precarious position as the seventh defenseman on a team that seemingly cannot carry seven defensemen and comply with the cap without a move.
Timmins, in need of a strong preseason to be able to make the roster, put on a tremendous showing tonight. He’s not a perfect defender — and did have a few wobbles in his own end — but he held up overall and was remarkably productive offensively. It seemed like every shift Timmins was able to push play forward from the back end. Beyond his goals and points, he also nearly set up Robertson for what would’ve been a sure goal if not for a great defensive play by Linus Weissbach.
When he played with TJ Brodie last season, Timmins was a clear asset for Toronto’s blue line. I didn’t quite understand why he fell so out of favor with the coaching staff and (old) management late in the season, especially with the trade of Erik Gustafsson replacing him on the depth chart. When he played for the Leafs last year, Timmins produced 14 points in 25 games, playing only 15:37 per game. That’s a valuable piece for the organization.
The new management team seemed to recognize that offensive creation from the defense was a major weakness when they signed John Klingberg, which is why I don’t think you can waive Timmins. His cap hit is only $1.1 million, he is signed for another season after this one, and he only just turned 25. On a team with multiple aging D on expiring contracts, it would be a major mistake to throw away an intriguing, cheap right-handed D talent.
– Elsewhere on defense, John Klingberg left the game in the first period and did not return. The severity of the ailment is unknown at this time. It’s obviously not ideal for the Leafs, but we can’t elaborate on the implications until we know more about a possible timeline.
I thought Timothy Liljegren looked very sharp as a rush defender, nullifying multiple rush chances with a good stick. He tied up Jeff Skinner early in the game to deny a scoring chance.
On the other hand, Jake McCabe was pretty invisible and in fact screened Martin Jones on the Jokiharju goal, even though he wasn’t defending anyone. McCabe is a legitimate NHLer, so I wouldn’t read anything into preseason, but it was a bit of a listless showing from him.
– As for Martin Jones, I thought he was fine. He made the big stop on Dylan Cozens and a few other nice saves, including a poke check on Owen Power toward the end of the third period. He didn’t face a ton of rubber (13 saves on 15 shots) as the roster Toronto iced was clearly superior in this matchup to Buffalo’s. Of the two goals Jones allowed, I didn’t love the first one live, but the shot uncorked by Davies was indeed nasty. You don’t like seeing a goalie with a shot at the NHL roster getting beaten clean by an AHL defenseman, but sometimes you tip your cap to a great shot. The second was a flukey shot through traffic; to me, it’s more on the defensemen: keep your goalie clean!
– The Max Domi, Fraser Minten, and Roni Hirvonen line was pretty quiet. Domi’s speed showed up and did score a goal following his penalty, but otherwise, I have few notes on him, while Minten and Hirvonen were exceptionally quiet. I did enjoy one pass by Minten to set up Domi for a look, but that’s all I have on that group.
– The duo of Sam Lafferty and Noah Gregor may have been my two favourite forwards. Both are speed demons, and that’s something the Leafs can absolutely use throughout the lineup. It felt like every shift they were playing in the offensive zone and causing mayhem on the offensive-zone forecheck, forcing turnovers and sustaining the cycle. Lafferty helped create the first goal and scored another on a breakaway short-handed via Matthew Knies, while Gregor didn’t find the stat sheet but indeed is just as shoot-happy as the analytics suggested he is in the offseason. Gregor put seven shots on goal tonight, three more than any other Leaf. He is doing everything to make himself a difficult cut, while Lafferty is making a statement that he is no cap casualty.
– It was a bit of a come-down for Easton Cowan after his spectacular performance in the last preseason game, but I wonder how much of that was his linemates, Alex Steeves and Kyle Clifford. Neither guy was giving Cowan a ton of help and they didn’t have too many memorable shifts. There were still some good moments, including his pass on the last PP to tee up the Timmins goal. There’s a lot of spark in Cowan’s game and this preseason/training camp has been an unambiguous success for him, even with a more quiet night tonight.
– If there was a forward I liked more than Lafferty and Gregor, it was Matthew Knies. He was a mule tonight, as he often is — strong in the corners and poised on the puck, matching skill with his power. His pass to spring Lafferty for the shorty was nifty, and he picked up another helper on the first goal. Most of all, though, his defensive work stood out, first off the bench at forward on the PK, providing poke checks in the neutral zone at five-on-five, and winning puck battles in the defensive zone.
– Knies’ other two linemates, John Tavares and Nick Robertson, were both fine. Tavares wasn’t terribly noticeable outside of the one great pass. It looked like he may have gotten a tip on the first goal, but the replay did not credit him with one. As for Robertson, he was certainly active but not quite as impactful as I would’ve liked to see. He seemed to run out of space when he needed to get a shot off. I think his skating looks a touch better — less hunched over and a bit quicker — and he was active across the ice, drawing a penalty, but you’d have liked him to look a bit more offensively dangerous over the duration of the 60 minutes. Keefe mentioned after the game that he showed signs of fatigue — as did others — given the grind of the first week of camp. Right now, the numbers game is working against him with Knies, Gregor, and Lafferty playing well.
Sheldon Keefe Post Game, Leafs 5 vs. Sabres 2
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) September 28, 2023
Toronto Maple Leafs Lineup
Matthew Knies – John Tavares – Nick Robertson
Max Domi – Fraser Minten – Roni Hirvonen
Noah Gregor – Pontus Holmberg – Sam Lafferty
Kyle Clifford – Easton Cowan – Alex Steeves
Jake McCabe – John Klingberg
William Lagesson – Timothy Liljegren
Maxime Lajoie – Conor Timmins
Buffalo Sabres Lineup
Rousek – Cozens – Olofsson
Weissbach – Jost – Kisakov
Murray – Krebs – Warren
Richards – Slaggert – Murray
Power – Jokiharju
Bryson – R. Johnson
Lindgren – Panocha