The Buffalo Sabres made their playoff chances a lot more realistic on Saturday when they defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-1 with three first period goals.
The Leafs seemed to come out rather sluggish to start the game and while they were able to score one late in the second period, the Sabres and Robin Lehner had their number all night. On the other side, Frederik Andersen didn’t have his best game. But it didn’t matter as the Leafs offence was shut down throughout the game and once again they didn’t play a full 60 minutes.
The Leafs goal did set a new franchise record for combined points by rookies in a single season, but chances are that won’t be the conversation for players and coaching staff of the Leafs following this one.
While the Sabres playoff hopes benefitted from Saturday night’s meeting, the Leafs postseason push took a major hit with the Bruins winning earlier in the day. That being said, the Leafs have 11 games left against the Atlantic Division which could be a make-or-break situation for the club with 22 points up for grabs.
It didn’t take long for the forecast of the game to be set. Just two minutes into the first, Polak swatted the puck out of the air and it hit the crossbar behind Andersen before dropping in behind the Leafs goalie. While it didn’t cross the line, it was pretty clear that the Leafs would be fighting the puck on Saturday.
Throughout the period, Buffalo controlled the play. In fact, they spent a fair amount of the period in the Leafs zone and Toronto never really seemed to get their feet under them. Four minutes in, the Leafs already had three blocked shots – a telling stat as the Sabres had a number of opportunities early.
From there, it didn’t take long for the Sabres to take full control. Just over four minutes in, Jack Eichel won a face-off in the Leafs zone. Evander Kane picked up the loose puck just behind Eichel before rifling a shot past Andersen for his 17th goal of the season.
— Rogers NHL LIVE (@RogersNHLLive) February 12, 2017
Almost immediately after, Jake Gardiner took a hooking penalty when Eichel got in behind him in the Leafs zone and just 30 seconds after they got the power play, the Sabres struck again.
The Sabres power play broke in on an odd man rush. Kyle Okposo fired the pass across to a streaking Sam Reinhart who shot it over the sprawling Andersen and within 55 seconds, the Sabres had taken a two-goal lead.
The Leafs made attempts to get back into the game, including a Mitch Marner chance midway through the period. However, even then he lost control of the puck as he headed towards the net.
James van Riemsdyk and Rasmus Ristolainen dropped the gloves late in the frame and the Leafs even got an opportunity on the power play near the end of the period. Still, the Leafs couldn’t get anything going.
Instead, right after the Leafs’ power play expired, Kane took a pass in the high slot and fired home his second of the game giving the Sabres a three goal lead to close out the period.
— Rogers NHL LIVE (@RogersNHLLive) February 12, 2017
The second period was a perfect example of a shutdown game. The Sabres gave up a number of shots, but they weren’t high percentage opportunities.
When Okposo took a hooking penalty six minutes into the frame, the Leafs’ power play created some chances and was able to set up in the Sabres zone. With the crowd getting restless at the Air Canada Centre, the Leafs still couldn’t manage a goal.
Mike Babcock was looking for anything to work. He resorted to changing the lines around a bit, including putting Marner and Matthews together for just the second time this season. While it didn’t result in a goal, it did create an offensive shift for the Leafs.
Finally, after Marner drew a tripping penalty on Josh Gorges with five minutes left in the period, the Leafs got one past Lehner. After Lehner made a number of great stops to start the power play, Marner got a break and wrapped the puck around. It took a lucky bounce out front and ended up in the Sabres’ net.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) February 12, 2017
The goal was assisted by Nikita Zaitsev which gave the Leafs rookies two more points on the year giving them a total of 208 and breaking the franchise record of 207. However, that was the only bright spot for the Leafs all night as they even out shot the Sabres in the second 13-9, but couldn’t muster anything more.
The Leafs picked up the pace to start the third – led by Marner who was a spark plug all over the ice. He even laid a solid hit on Ristolainen early in the period.
But Lehner stopped all 18 shots he saw in the period. The Sabres started to close down defensively – only managing four shots of their own in the period. And Dan Bylsma’s team finished off a full 60-minute effort in Toronto.
Lehner finished with 43 saves and the Sabres team blocked another 20 shots which certainly helped contain the Leafs’ high-powered offence. The Sabres picked up two big points which put them within five points of the final wildcard spot and the Leafs dropped to the second wildcard spot with the Bruins picking up a big win on Saturday afternoon.
With two meetings left between these two clubs, the Eastern Conference standings should get interesting and it’ll be four big points at stake down the stretch.
BUF – Evander Kane (17) assisted by Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel
BUF – Sam Reinhart (12) PPG assisted by Kyle Okposo and Jack Eichel
BUF – Evander Kane (18) assisted by Jack Eichel and Justin Falk
TOR – Mitch Marner (15) PPG assisted by Tyler Bozak and Nikita Zaitsev
THW Three Stars
First: Jack Eichel (3 assists)
Second: Evander Kane (2 goals)
Third: Robin Lehner (43 saves and the win)
New York Islanders at Toronto Maple Leafs
Air Canada Centre – 7:30 p.m. EST – Tuesday, February 14
Broadcast channels – TSN4 and MSG+
2016-17 Season Series: Islanders lead 2-0-0
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.