The Buffalo Sabres beat the Toronto Maple Leafs by a score of 5-2 in the Heritage Classic in Hamilton. It’s the second time they’d beaten the Blue & White in 11 days. No excuses for the Maple Leafs, but it was never going to be a game that was easy for them to win.
We were worried about this game even before it started because of the Maple Leafs’ goal of puck control and their East-West style of game. It was obvious that the ice was in terrible shape and that was made even worse with the addition of snow.
Takeaway #1: The Buffalo Sabres’ Plan of Attack
The Sabres played the game exactly the way fans should have expected. They kept the game simple, clogged up the middle of the ice and the front of their own net, and then waited for breakout chances.
It was a smart plan. Given that the Sabres had already played the same team with the same goalie less than two weeks ago, they had to believe the goaltending at the other end was a potential weakness. So they simply were patient and waited for the goalie to give them the game.
Takeaway #2: Maple Leafs’ Mistake All the Way Around
Players like Mitch Marner and William Nylander struggled to make the type of cross-ice, soft-touch passes they’re so good at. Marner did get better as the game went. However, although he played a big part in the first Maple Leafs’ goal, Nylander seemed to get worse.
None of the six Maple Leafs’ defensemen had what could be called a good game. Of all of them, Ilya Lyubushkin probably had the “best” game if only because he didn’t stand out for either good or bad reasons. Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe finally put Lyubushkin and Morgan Rielly together. Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin struggled and probably need some easier minutes to help them regain their confidence.
Once again, the Maple Leafs’ defense allowed Sabres’ players to get behind them far too often. The team experienced a number of breakdowns that simply should be second-nature for well-coached hockey players. For example, if a defenseman pinches, the other defenseman and a forward must be aware and ready to cover.
Not only did a forward fail to stay back, but the other defenseman also seemed oblivious to what was happening a number of times. Such things are taught at all levels of the game; but, they’re things the Maple Leafs aren’t always doing.
Takeaway #3: Mrazek Played Better than the Result
To be honest, given the score and the recent history of Maple Leafs’ goalie play, undoubtedly Peter Mrazek will be roasted over the coals. But he played a pretty good game overall. The issue, and it’s been repeated for several games, is that the Maple Leafs allowed numerous situations where a Sabres’ player was either in alone or close to it. Mrazek handled most of those plays well. But the keyword is “most.”
Watching Mrazek in the net, it’s easy to tell from his actions that he’s tense and unsure of himself. He looks as fidgety as Garret Sparks used to when he played. That’s not a good headspace for a goalie to inhabit either for his own wellbeing or to build the confidence of the players in front of him.
The third Sabres’ goal was both the game-winner and the game-killer. The Sabres’ Vinnie Hinostroza broke a 2-2 tie early in the third period when his sharp-angle shot from the corner sneaked through Mrazek’s arm and the post. For a goalie who’s struggling, that’s a confidence breaker. It was the first of three straight goals the Sabres scored to end the game.
Takeaway #4: The Auston Matthews Crosscheck and Playing Angry
Auston Matthews scored his 45th goal of the season, which leads the NHL. However, he also now faces a possible suspension for cross-checking the Sabres’ defenseman Rasmus Dahlin. He’s set to have a hearing with the NHL’s department of player safety today; and, neither of us would be surprised if Matthews were not assessed a one-game suspension.
In yesterday’s post, we noted that the Maple Leafs needed to play angry. Furthermore, we wondered whether Matthews might just respond with some anger because penalties were not being called. However, crosschecking an opponent isn’t what we had in mind.
Still, the question is whether playing with some anger, which obviously might be something that emerges from this game, would be a good thing or not. We both believe the Maple Leafs need to play mad. In an update to this post after publication, Matthews was suspended for two games by the NHL.
Takeaway #5: If Only for Average Goaltending
The worst thing about this recent string of losses is that all the Maple Leafs needed to turn a losing streak into a winning streak was average goaltending. They’re not getting it. For the Maple Leafs to be successful, they need a goalie who can stop nine of 10 shots and keep the opposition to three goals a game.
The team doesn’t need a goalie to steal games, but they can’t win when the goalie just gives games away. Does Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe have another option except to start Erik Kallgren against the Dallas Stars during their next game? Can Kallgren at the very least give the Maple Leafs “average NHL goaltending?”
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
This could be an interesting week for the Blue and White. The trade deadline is a week away and Jake Muzzin is eligible to come back at some point this week. Keefe stated that they might give Muzzin a few games in the AHL. If that’s the case, Maple Leafs’ fans might not see him until after next weekend.
By the way, the Boston Bruins are now only two points back of the Maple Leafs with the same number of games played. It might be an interesting week.
[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]
The Old Prof (Jim Parsons, Sr.) taught for more than 40 years in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. He’s a Canadian boy, who has two degrees from the University of Kentucky and a doctorate from the University of Texas. He is now retired on Vancouver Island, where he lives with his family. His hobbies include playing with his hockey cards and simply being a sports fan – hockey, the Toronto Raptors, and CFL football (thinks Ricky Ray personifies how a professional athlete should act).
If you wonder why he doesn’t use his real name, it’s because his son – who’s also Jim Parsons – wrote for The Hockey Writers first and asked Jim Sr. to use another name so readers wouldn’t confuse their work.
Because Jim Sr. had worked in China, he adopted the Mandarin word for teacher (老師). The first character lǎo (老) means “old,” and the second character shī (師) means “teacher.” The literal translation of lǎoshī is “old teacher.” That became his pen name. Today, other than writing for The Hockey Writers, he teaches graduate students research design at several Canadian universities.
He looks forward to sharing his insights about the Toronto Maple Leafs and about how sports engages life more fully. His Twitter address is https://twitter.com/TheOldProf