The “Battle of the QEW” (Queen Elizabeth Way, a highway that connects Toronto and Buffalo) is in the books for the 2021-22 NHL season, and the results might surprise some. Tage Thompson and Jeff Skinner led the way in a 5-2 Buffalo Sabres victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday at ScotiaBank Arena. The win concluded the season series 3-1 in Buffalo’s favor.
The Maple Leafs defeated the Sabres on Nov.13, their first meeting in almost two years due to the divisional realignments of the 2021 season. However, the Sabres responded with three straight lopsided victories against their storied rival, the first time that’s happened since the 2015-16 season. The Sabres, who have been eliminated from the playoffs for an NHL-record 11th consecutive year, outscored the the Maple Leafs 15-5 in that span. Toronto is currently fourth in the Eastern Conference and has a playoff spot well-secured, but the team didn’t resemble itself against Buffalo all season. There’s two simple reasons for that, let’s take a look.
Scoring: Buffalo Goes Off, Toronto Falters
All four contests between the two teams this season were high scoring. This should come as no surprise, seeing as the Maple Leafs boast the NHL’s leading goal scorer in Auston Matthews, as well as the likes of John Tavares, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander. The Sabres have been a surprisingly productive despite their poor record, led by Thompson, Skinner and Kyle Okposo. This led to a combined 29 goals scored across the four games, an average of 7.3 per game. What might come as a surprise, however, is that 19 of those were scored by the Sabres.
The Maple Leafs won the first game 5-4, but that victory now seems like an apparition, as they scored just five goals combined in three games against the Sabres after that. It also might not sit well with Toronto fans that many of their big guns were missing in action over the course of the series, most notably Matthews and Tavares, who scored only one goal each. Tuesday’s game was the icing on the proverbial cake for both teams, albeit in vastly different ways. Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe was quite candid afterward.
“That’s four games against this team, and we have been no-shows in all four” (from Lowly Sabres lay one last beating on Maple Leafs to take season series, The Toronto Sun, 4/12/22).
Skinner and Thompson, on the other hand, scored four goals each for Buffalo across the series, while Rasmus Dahlin and Kyle Okposo added two a piece as well. The Maple Leafs have been an offensive juggernaut this season, averaging 3.79 goals per game, but they failed to showcase that against a considerably lesser opponent.
Goaltending: Old Man Anderson Stands Tall, Mrazek Stumbles
Craig Anderson is currently the oldest active goaltender in the NHL and the Sabres rolled the dice this past summer by signing him to be their starter. The 40-year-old has played about as well as one could hope, and has given the Sabres a chance to win more often than not, but he has looked his age at many points as well.
Given this, one would think that the oldest netminder in the game might not be the ideal choice to take on a team as stacked as the Maple Leafs. Toronto has lit up some of the best goaltenders in the league this season, and surely Anderson wouldn’t stand a chance, right?
Wrong. Anderson was superb against Toronto this season, winning all three of his starts against them while allowing just five goals against. The high-flying Maple Leafs offense couldn’t crack him, and the Sabres’ offense picked up its backstop in return. This was the other issue for the Leafs.
It would be very difficult to deny the thump the Toronto roster possesses from top to bottom, but in recent weeks it has become increasingly evident that the team has an Achilles heel: goaltending. Jack Campbell continued his stellar play from last season into this season, receiving his first career All-Star appearance after a terrific first half, but he has struggled since. A rib injury has hampered the 30-year-old in the second half, and it’s caused his goals-against average (GAA) and and save percentage (SV%) to leap from All-Star break marks of 2.02 and .935, respectively, to his current marks of 2.72 and .912. It’s not an alarming jump, but it was clear that Campbell was not right, and he was eventually placed on the injured list.
As a result, Keefe was forced to put his faith in shaky backup Petr Mrazek. The timing happened to coincide with the 2022 Heritage Classic, undoubtedly the most high-profile game of the year for either team. With the lights at Tim Horton’s Field in Hamilton, ON shining bright, the stage was set for Mrazek to make his mark.
For whatever reason, he couldn’t. The Czech allowed four goals to the comparatively-inferior Sabres attack, including two from fourth-liner Vinnie Hinostroza that weren’t exactly for the highlight reel. Compounded with their own offense managing just two tallies, it was a frustrating day for the Maple Leafs. Multiple scrums broke out near the end of the contest, and Matthews was eventually suspended for two games after cross-checking Buffalo’s Rasmus Dahlin in the neck.
Related: Maple Leafs’ Goaltending Remains a Big Question Mark
It wasn’t a good look for the Maple Leafs, who were heavily favored by both the media and fans to win. It led to speculation that the team would attempt to acquire a goaltender at the Trade Deadline, which it ultimately didn’t.
Tuesday’s win cemented the season series for the Sabres, but it’s not as if it matters too much for the Maple Leafs, who are on to the postseason. Meanwhile, the Sabres, as they’ve done for the past decade, will watch while polishing their golf clubs. But do the losses spell potential trouble for captain John Tavares and Co?
A Bad Omen for the Leafs?
The Maple Leafs, sitting at 102 points as of April 14, have a chance to finish this season with their highest point total in franchise history, and will enter the playoffs with high chances of winning the Stanley Cup. A deep postseason run has eluded the team for some time, and it hasn’t managed to escape the first round in each of its past five appearances. Players and fans know how much is riding this time around, and the repercussions could be heavy in the event of another early exit. That’s why their three losses to Buffalo this season might be more alarming than it seems.
Three times this season the Maple Leafs fell to a Sabres team that, let’s face it, just doesn’t measure up. While it’s admittedly a small sample size, it doesn’t bode well for a team that’s struggled to win games when it matters most in recent history. It’s a fact that every team loses a game it should win every now and then, but considering that Buffalo won three contests by three goals or more — while Toronto’s lone victory was by a single goal — it raises some eyebrows. Couple this with the team’s issues in net, and maybe there is cause for concern in The Megacity.