Ilya Samsonov and the Maple Leafs return to the scene of their 9-3 loss in December. Tonight on HNIC (7:00 p.m. EST, Sportsnet/CBC), they will seek payback in the split-crowd atmosphere of the KeyBank Center in Buffalo.

Most importantly, after Florida’s 3-2 shootout win over Detroit this afternoon, the Leafs are looking to keep the gap at six points in the home-ice advantage race in the Atlantic Division with a game in hand for Toronto (with two of the Leafs‘ remaining nine games coming against the Panthers).

Tonight, the Leafs will face a third opponent in a row who is fighting to stay alive in the Eastern Conference wildcard race, although the Sabres are facing steep odds at six points back with two more games played than Washington. Still, the memory of the 9-3 loss to Buffalo shouldn’t be forgotten, nor the recent 6-3 loss to New Jersey, the two 6-5 OT losses to Columbus this season, or the three losses to the Senators in which the Leafs conceded a combined 15 goals; they are all pertinent reminders of the fact that many teams on the outside of the playoff picture in the East still possess the offensive talent to inflict serious damage if the Leafs‘ structure and detail isn’t where it needs to be.

The Sabres are certainly one of those teams, as Tage Thompson’s four-goal game against the Devils last night reminds us. This month, they have put seven past Vegas, seven past Detroit, and six past Seattle before Friday night’s 5-2 win over New Jersey.

With Morgan Rielly and Mitch Marner ruled out for today, and Joel Edmundson and Timothy Liljegren considered week-to-week, the Leafs are likely to roll out the same lineup as they did in their 5-1 win over the Capitals outside of the goalie swap (Samsonov starts in goal).

Game Day Quotes

Bobby McMann on the chemistry and fit alongside John Tavares and William Nylander so far:

They are elite players, and it is a little different playing with them. You never know when you are going to get the puck or what they are going to do with it. You always have to be ready. I think it has been good so far.

I think they just demand high execution all the time. They expect you to make plays. That is the type of game I want to play. It is pushing me to be a better player and to get them the puck and vice versa. I think we are all good enough to make plays.

McMann on the challenge of shutting down Tage Thompson coming off of his four-goal game vs. New Jersey last night:

Just get in his space. If you make him rush plays, he is not going to have the puck on his stick. Be aware of him, but with the way that we pressure, we have been playing hard and physically lately. If we’re playing through his hands, I think it shouldn’t be a problem.

McMann on the pros and cons of playing against a tired opponent in the second half of a back-to-back:

You could maybe say they are a little slower, but there are also times when they are right in the game, maybe before we are. On the back-to-back, for us, sometimes it feels like you are in the game and have your reads and spacing clicking right away because you were just playing the night before.

We definitely aren’t taking it lightly. We have to be ready for them.

Sheldon Keefe on the challenge the Sabres present:

The opponent tonight is probably more like New Jersey and less like Washington. That in and of itself creates different challenges in terms of their skill set, ability to play in transition, and the pace they can bring from the defense.

We are going to be challenged in different ways than we were the other night. We are going to have to be that much more focused on it and be good on offense ourselves while making sure we are managing the puck really well. Play in the offensive zone and make it harder on their top people by forcing them to defend.

Keefe on whether he reminded his team of the 9-3 loss to Buffalo in December:

 I mentioned it yesterday. That is a long time ago and a lot has changed since then, but it is a reminder of what this opponent is capable of and the type of skill that they have when you don’t play an organized game. You open up the possibility of something like that happening. It was just a reminder of that.

I don’t think we need to go too far into it. It is more about using it as an example of the chances we gave up and the type of game we played there. We gave up free offense. In those kinds of games, this team thrives.

Head-to-Head Stats: Maple Leafs vs. Sabres

In the season-to-date statistics, the Leafs hold the advantage over the Sabres in five out of five offensive categories, but the Sabres hold the advantage in four out of five defensive categories.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#59 Tyler Bertuzzi – #34 Auston Matthews – #11 Max Domi
#74 Bobby McMann – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#23 Matthew Knies – #29 Pontus Holmberg – #89 Nick Robertson
#24 Connor Dewar – #64 David Kampf – #75 Ryan Reaves

#2 Simon Benoit – #22 Jake McCabe
#78 TJ Brodie – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
#55 Mark Giordano – #25 Conor Timmins

Starter: #35 Ilya Samsonov
#60 Joseph Woll

Scratched: Noah Gregor, Martin Jones
Injured/Out: Morgan Rielly, Joel Edmundson, Mitch Marner, Calle Jarnkrok, Timothy Liljegren

Buffalo Sabres Projected Lines

#77 JJ Peterka – #72 Tage Thompson – #89 Alex Tuch
#9 Zach Benson – #24 Dylan Cozens – #21 Kyle Okposo
#53 Jeff Skinner – #19 Peyton Krebs – #12 Jordan Greenway
#28 Zemgus Girgensons – #17 Tyson Jost – #50 Eric Robinson

#25 Owen Power – #26 Rasmus Dahlin
#4 Bowen Byram – #10 Henri Jokiharju
#78 Jacob Bryson – #75 Connor Clifton

Starter: #1 Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen
#27 Devon Levi

Injured/Out: Mattias Samuelsson, Lukas Rousek