Rivalry games are always ones that fans and teams circle on the calendar. The 82-game NHL season can become repetitive from game to game. The rivalry games are what keep the fans coming back for more throughout the season in most cases. In fact, the NHL even has a night once a week dedicated to airing these types of games. Well, Thursday night will be one of these exciting nights in Buffalo. The Sabres will take on their biggest rival in the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Leafs and Sabres are separated by a little over 90 miles of road called Queen Elizabeth Way (the QEW). The two have a vast history going back to the days of Rob Ray and Tie Domi, as well as the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals. A Leafs visit to Buffalo usually meant a crowd that was a 50/50 split with a lot of energy in the building. The games in Toronto would feature a heavy Sabres crowd as well, but usually not to the same ratio seen in Buffalo.
However, over the past few years, this rivalry has become stale and dormant. Both clubs fell to the bottom of the standings and the games lost any type of real excitement. Sure, fans of the opposing team enjoyed reveling in the misery of the other franchise. Beyond that, it was just another game on the schedule. In most situations over the past few seasons fans were rooting against their team of choice to get a leg up in the “tank wars”.
Injection of Youth
Over the last year, we’ve begun to see a shift. The Sabres got their superstar in Jack Eichel in the 2015 NHL draft. They started to become a relevant team again last season and no longer a basement dweller. Then the big spark to ignite the rivalry again occurred at the 2016 NHL Draft in Buffalo for that matter. Talk about irony. The Leafs would get their star player in the fellow USA-born forward Auston Matthews.
Thus a rivalry was officially created and at the same time reborn. Two of USA Hockey’s biggest stars and arguably future faces of the program would play 90 miles apart. The fan base in Toronto, the hockey universe, is alive again with the new youth on the roster. It’s not only Matthews, it’s recent first round picks William Nylander and Mitch Marner as well. Those three players might be the most intriguing trio of youngsters currently in the NHL on one team.
On the flip side of the coin, it’s not all about Eichel in Buffalo either. Players like Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen make up pieces of the young core that has been assembled under General Manager Tim Murray. The rivalry itself goes beyond Eichel and Matthews. Down the road, we’ll see the Nylander brothers face off, with the Sabres selecting the younger brother of William Nylander, Alex, eight overall this past draft. Ristolainen and Morgan Reilly just signed similar long-term deals with their respective clubs as the top defenseman in the organization.
The rivalry even made its presence felt in the free agent sweepstakes for Steven Stamkos this past summer. The two sides bickered over why their side made more sense for the big fish who would eventually never end up hitting the open market. Need more proof the rivalry is back? Ask a Sabres and a Leafs fan, “Who had the better rebuild?” Then take a step back and watch them go at it.
From a Buffalo side at least, I believe hockey is better with the rivalry back. An early November game actually has excitement and meaning built into it. It’s unfortunate that on Thursday Eichel will not be in the lineup, but that day will come. Toronto and Buffalo are two teams that are on the rise in the Eastern Conference. They have similarly built rosters and are on a nearly identical path back to being contenders again. Thursday night may be only the first of five meetings this season, but both fan bases want the win badly.