Tonight, the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs rivalry resumed for another season, as the young Sabres hosted an equally youthful Leafs lineup. Heading into the game, Buffalo had won 17 of the last 19 matchups on home ice since 2009. Would the Sabres home-ice dominance continue?
In the first period, the Leafs swarmed with speed and tenacity. Four minutes in, the Sabres were caught out of position defensively, as Tyler Bozak hit Mitch Marner with a beautiful cross-ice pass for a 1-0 Leafs lead. Zemgus Girgensons and Dmitry Kulikov were busy chasing Leafs players, while Casey Nelson seemed to be in no-mans land on the play.
You might not have guessed without looking at the score sheet, but Buffalo outshot Toronto 15-7 in the first period. The Leafs appeared to control the puck and most of the play.
In the second period, juvenile-looking Marner struck again, this time unassisted, for a 2-0 Toronto lead. Talk-of-the-town Leafs rookie phenom Auston Matthews looked invisible, as did Jack Eichel for the Sabres (due to injury). Buffalo again held the shots advantage, 16-15.
In the third period, Marcus Foligno made the game interesting, notching a goal to make it 2-1 off assists from Johan Larsson and Samson Reinhart. Despite the Sabres applying plenty of pressure in the final ten minutes, Toronto would hold on to gain their first victory in Buffalo in 1,374 days.
In a game where the Sabres needed the top line of Kyle Okposo, Ryan O'Reilly, and Matt Moulson to step up, they did not. Zemgus Girgensons, in a chance to make a difference, missed a wide open chance to score. Tyler Ennis was ineffective all game, and it seems like he was performing better on the Buffalo "tank" rosters. Johan Larsson was a beast all night.
Goaltender Robin Lehner did his part to keep Buffalo in the game. His counterpart, Frederik Andersen, made 42 saves for the Leafs, earning first star honors. Most of Buffalo's shots were very weak and, obviously, ineffective.
For me, the game boiled down to Dan Bylsma versus Mike Babcock. Buffalo made a play for Babcock to be the Sabres coach, and lost him to Toronto, then settled with Bylsma. Babcock seems to be getting the most out of his young team, and was always a step ahead of Bylsma strategically all game tonight. Bylsma looked to O'Reilly near the end of the game to make a decision that he should have been making, whether or not to use a time-out.
The Sabres have a talented squad. They performed admirably, collecting three victories in a row prior to tonight, despite missing Jack Eichel and Evander Kane. The team has tons of potential. They could make things happen. I just hope we have an intuitive coach behind the bench, to help make changes and a difference, when needed.