It was the first instalment of the Battle of the QEW since the NHL shut down amidst the pandemic and like many before it, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 5-4 victory over the Buffalo Sabres lived up to expectations.
As most of Leafs Nation knows, the Maple Leafs have struggled over the years in Buffalo with a 32-66-6-6 all-time record against the Sabres in their barn, and while the blue and white escaped Saturday’s game with a win, they narrowly missed out after giving up another two goal lead.
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That said, Morgan Rielly scored a big goal in the final minute of the third period to secure the victory and continue the Maple Leafs’ early season run in the Atlantic Division.
Still, there were a number of aspects of the game that should be talked about, including three major takeaways from the divisional matchup.
Maple Leafs’ Woll Solid in NHL Debut
As one of the just two remaining players drafted by the Maple Leafs in 2016 – along with Auston Matthews – when the draft was in Buffalo, Joseph Woll made his NHL debut for the team on Saturday after 50 regular season games at the AHL level with sub-par numbers.
Mechanically, he looked impressive – pushing from side to side to make some stops and staying squared up in his net with the Sabres’ forwards coming in on him. He made himself look bigger than six-foot-four and 200 pounds and reduced the options for opposing shooters consistently throughout the night.
While his start was impressive, picking up the win, there were a couple of things he still could have worked on to better his overall performance for the next game he gets into. His reaction time was a little delayed at times during the game and his rebound control was a noticeable deficiency in his game.
Even on the Sabres’ first goal – scored by Jeff Skinner – while he still may not have made the stop, Woll was slightly delayed getting across the net almost being overly mechanical in his efforts to get across the net.
Still, Woll made 23 stops – including an .800 high-danger save percentage (HDSV%) – in his first career NHL win and while he wasn’t perfect, there were a number of positives to his game worth recognizing.
Maple Leafs’ Liljegren Earning Every Minute
While fellow Swede, Rasmus Sandin, got the night off for the Maple Leafs, Timothy Liljegren remained in the lineup and rightfully so. Over the past couple of weeks, Liljegren seems to finally be getting his opportunity to prove his worth to the big club and is running away with it.
Over the first ten games, he’s averaging nearly 16 minutes per game and is making his presence known on both sides of the puck. He’s averaging nearly three shots attempts per game and has played physically and with poise in his own end.
While he did finish with a minus-two rating against the Sabres, he played over 15 minutes and just under a minute on the penalty kill. He was on the ice for six defensive zone face-offs, which made up for just under 50 percent of the draws he was on for in all situations and still came out having showed a number of smart plays throughout the night.
Liljegren finished fifth among the Maple Leafs’ six defensemen in ice-time on Saturday night, but should see a boost in that number if his play continues to excel. His passing and the way he was seeing the ice against the Sabres was the perfect display of just why the Maple Leafs took him in the first round of the draft in 2017.
Maple Leafs’ Holl Should Sit Again
If the success the Maple Leafs had when Justin Holl was out of the lineup, wasn’t an indication of how detrimental he can be to the team in his own zone, let this game agains the Sabres act as a reminder to how poorly he’s played this season. Better yet, let it act as a primary indicator for the Maple Leafs’ staff that Holl should once again be watching the game rather than playing.
Let me introduce the first piece of evidence – we’ll call it Exhibit A. On the Rasmus Dahlin goal that tied the game at 4-4 with just over eight minutes remaining in the game, Holl was the primary point of puck contact along the end boards. He had a chance to play it out of the zone or up the wall and instead lost the puck with very little effort to retrieve it.
The puck was sent back to the point – or onto Dahlin’s stick – and as that was taking place, Holl coasted back out in front of the Maple Leafs net. While it wasn’t definitive, the Dahlin point shot may have even brushed off the shin pad of Holl on it’s way into the net and past Woll.
Exhibit B came earlier in the final frame when he pinched along the boards with his defensive partner taking the shot and it ricocheting around the boards and passed Holl. Fortunately, the Sabres player wasn’t able to pick up the loose puck and skate it back the other way, but it’s the decision making that can and will become very costly for the Maple Leafs down the stretch.
It could be as simply as Holl needing a reboot somewhere else and maybe with the pressure of playing in Toronto after they lost Jared McCann in order to hold onto him, maybe that brings added pressure. Regardless, something needs to change if the Maple Leafs hope to get past the first round and it has to start with their back end.
Also Worth Noting…
Rielly’s game-winning-goal was just the second goal scored by a Maple Leafs’ defenceman this season. That has the team ranking last in that category.
John Tavares’ third period goal was his 100th in a Maple Leafs uniform. He sits 58th on the franchise’s all-time goal scoring list and is just two shy of tying Peter Ihnacák for 57th on the list.
Maple Leafs Return Home Against Predators
After another big win in Buffalo, the Maple Leafs will have two days off to rest up before they take on the Nashville Predators on Tuesday, Nov. 16, back home in Toronto at Scotiabank Arena.
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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.