The Maple Leafs are looking to bounce back from their first regulation loss in nine games when they travel down the QEW for a meeting with the struggling Sabres (7:00 p.m. EST, Sportsnet Ontario).
The Leafs have lost their last two meetings with the Sabres (both in Toronto), including a 6-4 loss last month. Their 7-5-0 record (with one OT win) in Buffalo during the Matthews era is certainly not as poor of a road record as the one the Leafs posted over the many seasons pre-Matthews when the Sabres’ rink was an infamous house of horrors for them, but it often doesn’t matter what the teams’ respective form is coming into these Sabres-Leafs matchups; it’s typically quite competitive and dramatic/high scoring.
The recent form of the two teams could not be more starkly different in a manner that favours Toronto on paper. Sabres fans booed their team off the ice after a 9-4 loss to Columbus on Tuesday, which dropped Buffalo to 3-6-1 in their last 10 and has head coach Don Granato facing significant heat in the market. The Leafs have points in nine of their last 10 (6-1-3) and are scoring 3.9 goals per game over that span (third in the NHL).
Between 5v5 goals against, expected goals for/against, special teams, and goaltending, most of the key performance indicators are not pretty for the Sabres 30 games into the season.
– Since returning two games ago, Timothy Liljegren has spent about half of his five-on-five ice time on a pairing with Morgan Rielly, but he was shifted to a pairing with Jake McCabe to start the game vs. New York before the pairings were mixed and matched the rest of the way. Tonight, Liljegren returns to Rielly’s right, and TJ Brodie will play on the left paired with McCabe on the right — an indication of both Brodie’s mixed performances/offensive limitations on the right side so far this season and McCabe’s fairly smooth transition to his offside after the injuries to Liljegren and John Klingberg. Notably, McCabe has seven points in his last seven games.
Brodie – McCabe is a pairing that was underwater in the underlying numbers and out-scored 6-3 in last year’s playoffs. In 36 minutes of shared five-on-five ice time this season, they’ve been outscored 3-2. But McCabe has been playing some of his best hockey as a Leaf of late and playing his strong side might help Brodie’s game settle down at both ends. Something to monitor.
– Simon Benoit will step in for William Lagesson on the Leafs‘ bottom pairing. It’s unlikely to be performance-based so much as wanting to keep both players involved, but it wasn’t the easiest night for Lagesson on Tuesday between a holding penalty (after a turnover) leading to a Rangers power-play goal and then a puck bouncing into his own net off of his skate on the penalty kill. The Sabres have size up front and they should be desperate coming off the 9-4 loss to Columbus, so Benoit’s physicality defending his net might be an asset.
– The most controversial lineup shuffle comes in net, where Ilya Samsonov will start over Martin Jones. The reality is that the Leafs are going to need Samsonov to find his way back to something resembling respectable form, and while Joseph Woll is out, it would be short-sighted to leave him on the shelf without game reps for an extended period due to an inconsistent first 12 games of the season. But those facts understandably don’t make Leafs fans feel any more warm and cozy about Samsonov (.878 SV%) tending the net tonight coming off of a tough six-goals-against outing a week ago versus Columbus.
Game Day Quotes
Sabres head coach Don Granato on his team’s fragility at the moment:
We are playing tight and fearing the next mistake at times. That will complicate things for you every day. You have to let go of what you can let go of and find that energy and excitement.
Everybody knows. We went through some clips that are obvious errors, but you can’t harbour much fear in this business or you will pay the price for it.
Granato on the difficulty of shutting down Auston Matthews amid a nine-goals-in-five-games hot streak:
It is about the five-man unit and the goaltender, so it’s six against any top players but specifically guys that don’t need very much time or space to put a puck in the net. He is one of those guys.
It is a challenge every day that you play against players in this league who are great players. This is a team with great players. He is certainly one of them who you need to pay special attention to.
A lot of times, it is what you do with the puck. Can you keep it? Can you extend offensive-zone possessions? Do you line change the right way?
The best players will take advantage of any little gap there is more than the next guy. He is one of them.
Sheldon Keefe on the challenge the Sabres present despite their struggles:
Very talented team. They have lots of game-breakers on forward. They have lots of skill. They have size, too — a lot of their best people are some of the biggest guys in the league both on forward and D.
There is a lot to handle there. They have two first-overall picks on defense. One or the other is on the ice virtually at all times. There are some significant challenges there.
We seem to get their best when we play these guys. They have already taken two points from us this season. We are expecting a tough game.
Morgan Rielly on the challenge against a desperate Sabres team:
We expect them to play hard and have a good start. We have to be ready for that.
We are expecting a team with tons of speed and tons of skill that likes to play off the rush. They have a good team over there.
We are not expecting anything other than that. We are going to prepare and be ready to go.
Head-to-Head Stats: Maple Leafs vs. Sabres
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#23 Matthew Knies – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#59 Tyler Bertuzzi – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#89 Nick Robertson – #11 Max Domi – #19 Calle Jarnkrok
#74 Bobby McMann – #64 David Kampf – #18 Noah Gregor
#44 Morgan Rielly – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#78 TJ Brodie – #22 Jake McCabe
#2 Simon Benoit – #25 Conor Timmins
Starter: #35 Ilya Samsonov
#31 Martin Jones
Scratched: William Lagesson
Injured: John Klingberg, Mark Giordano, Joseph Woll, Ryan Reaves
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 Mittelstadt – #9 Zach Benson
#50 Eric Robinson – #19 Peyton Krebs – #21 Kyle Okposo
#26 Rasmus Dahlin – #23 Mattias Samuelsson
#25 Owen Power – #10 Henri Jokiharju
#33 Ryan Johnson – #75 Connor Clifton
Starter: #27 Devon Levi
#1 Ukko-Pekka Luukonen
Injured: Jordan Greenway, Zemgus Girgensons