For the first time in 81 days, the Toronto Maple Leafs were allowed to play in front of a full capacity crowd at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. However, as is often the case when the Buffalo Sabres come to town, the Maple Leafs skated off with a loss and one that has much of Leafs Nation is looking to the sky in bewilderment.
The Maple Leafs soured their home crowd with a stinker of an effort, losing 5-1 to a Sabres team that was coming off six straight losses heading into the game against the Maple Leafs. What made it worse was the home crowd booed their team off the ice following the poor effort.
As always though, we watched intently and took in some of the aspects of the game that were worth discussing. With that, here’s what we took away from the Maple Leafs’ loss to the Sabres on Wednesday night.
Maple Leafs’ Sandin Learning From Experience
Sure, it’s only two games in a row, but we’ll still call it a goal-scoring streak for the young Swedish defenceman. For Rasmus Sandin, there are a number of aspects of his game that can be picked apart as he got an opportunity to play on the top pairing with Morgan Rielly.
At this point in time, he seemed a little out of place. He was playing against tougher competition and working with a new partner who is also a puck mover. Asked if he would play the pair together again, head coach Sheldon Keefe responded, “Probably not.”
But Keefe also said that the focus shouldn’t be solely on Sandin, who did pot his fourth goal of the season in the first period. Keefe said it was complete chaos around his young defenceman, including those on the ice with him in the defensive zone, but that there are things Sandin needs to work on.
All of that comes with experience. He needs to experience the ups and downs of playing on the top pairing to really learn and understand positioning and protection of his area in all zones. There has been growth to his game already, the ability to adapt and learn is certainly there.
Look at what he’s doing on the offensive end now. He’s settled in, he’s finding the gaps and getting himself open and it’s led to two goals in the last two games. Those changes and those adaptations will come on the defensive side of the puck as well, it jus takes time. There’s no doubt that Sandin has already come a long way and will continue his growth, while becoming a major part of the Maple Leafs blue line moving forward.
Maple Leafs Missed on Making Most of Opportunities
It’s not a pretty picture when you’re looking at the Atlantic Division playoff picture. As of now, at least one of Tampa Bay, Florida or the Maple Leafs will be out following the first round. Because of that, every point counts in earning top place in the division and home-ice advantage.
The problem is the Maple Leafs are habitual in playing down to the level of their opponents and as Sandin said following the loss to the Sabres, “No disrespect to them, but that’s a team we should beat.”
He’s right. As mentioned, the Sabres had lost six in a row coming into the game. They sit second to the Montreal Canadiens from the bottom of the division and 29th overall in the NHL. Had the Maple Leafs won, they could’ve leapfrogged the Panthers (for the time being) and tied the Lightning atop the division.
Instead, the Maple Leafs squandered their opportunity to capture two points and walked away with more teaching moments than successes from this contest. In fact, including the game on Wednesday against the Sabres, the Maple Leafs have lost three games in the past two weeks to teams that are outside the playoffs. That doesn’t even include the 10-7 win over the Red Wings, which was much closer than anyone would’ve like.
Maple Leafs’ Goaltending Creating Worry
If you haven’t heard – which you should have – the Maple Leafs’ goaltending might be their biggest issue heading into the deadline. Jack Campbell is struggling with confidence and Petr Mrazek’s play just hasn’t lived up to standards more often than not.
Yet again on Wednesday, Mrazek seemed to overplay some pucks. Add that to a couple of bad bounces and the 5-1 loss looks pretty rough for a guy the Maple Leafs need to have at the top of his game – especially with Campbell’s struggles.
Mrazek saw 31 shots, stopped 26 of them, but had an expected goals against of 2.43 while giving up five. Two of those goals against came on low danger shots and those are the key saves that a team needs their netminder to make at key points in the game.
But Mrazek hasn’t stolen a game for the Maple Leafs this season the way that Campbell was doing early on. Furthermore, while the loss isn’t solely on the shoulders of Mrazek, he does have to be better if he’s going to be seeing more ice-time to close out the season.
Also Worth Noting
One of the few silver linings from this game was that Mitch Marner suited up in his 400th career NHL regular season game. Over that span he has 124 goals and 414 points. He’s the 70th player in franchise history to reach the 400-game plateau in blue and white and sits just seven games back of Tiger Williams for 69th on the franchise list.
As for what’s next, the Maple Leafs have two nights off while they get ready for a visit from the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.