It’s game day for the Toronto Maple Leafs – and although it’s a road game, the team didn’t have to travel all that far to get where they were going.
Toronto will look to put up their fifth consecutive win against their divisional rivals, the Buffalo Sabres, at the First Niagara Center just across the Canadian-US border.
Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and company will come into the game with plenty of rest. They haven’t played since Saturday, when they picked up a 5-3 road win against the Minnesota Wild; in comparison, the Sabres will skate into their contest tonight fresh on the heels of a tough loss to the Nashville Predators out in Tennessee.
The Sabres have dropped their last three straight, but don’t be fooled. With a history of success against Toronto and a surprisingly competitive roster this year, Buffalo could be a tough matchup for the Leafs as they await the return of Willie to the lineup.
No Nylander just yet, so Par Lindholm is sticking around for the time being. Expect the lines to get a healthy shuffle once the returning son comes back into the fold.
Meanwhile, this is a redemption scenario for Tyler Ennis. He’s no longer the player who was capable of putting up eye-catching tallies on the top line for Buffalo in years past, but he’s been a serviceable member of the bottom six for Toronto thus far. Don’t be surprised if he gets something going to show his old team that he’s still got it.
The Leafs’ third pairing is one of the most effective lower pairings in the NHL, which helps them tremendously in case the Sabres try matching Skinner to keep up his offensive tear. But as long as Ron Hainsey’s on the top pairing, there’s not a lot to say.
Jeff Skinner has been one of the biggest surprises of the season, finding another gear to his game upon arriving in Buffalo.
The entire team has been fascinating to watch. Something about the current lineup is finally where it should be, and the players know it. There’s been a lightness to the Leafs rivals this year, and they’re playing like they want to be there. This used to be a pushover team – now, they’re going to be even tougher to face off against.
I’m always hesitant to believe that defenders are really going to be as good as we hope when they’re drafted high. Maybe it’s the Noah Hanifin syndrome.
In any case, I severely underestimated Rasmus Dahlin before he was drafted, but he’s mesmerizing to watch. There’s still some growing room there, but he’s sneaky good at creating space and finding lanes to move the puck up the ice.
Freddie Andersen is expected to get the start against an effective – but still green – Linus Ullmark, since the Sabres gave Carter Hutton the nod against old club last night.
Andersen continues to be one of the biggest factors in helping the Leafs thrive, but he’s been just okay in his career against Buffalo. Where he has a career .937 against Boston, he boasts just a .915 against the Sabres in 11 games all-time. He’s lost three and won seven, but his biggest weaknesses seem to be at even strength and when facing the offensive rush; he’s allowed a shorthanded tally by them while on Toronto’s power play . and allowed 20 even-strength goals. His two power-play goals against through the 11 games facing Buffalo make them one of his best adversaries when the team is short-handed, though; only Florida and Vancouver have seen their power play fare worse than Buffalo’s against Andersen over the years. That bodes well for Toronto; if the game gets chippy, Andersen should be able to keep them in things.
On the other end of the ice, Ullmark boasts very little in experience – but he’s been stellar this year so far, putting up a .937 save percentage in all situations.
Speaking with some sources close to the Sabres, there’s still some concern about Ullmark’s longevity in the NHL due to some rebound control issues, but he’s got a confidence and ready demeanor that help him react well to his own self-made second shot situations. He’s never faced Toronto, so tough to tell how well he’ll react to their multitude of offensive weapons, but it’s certainly something to watch out for.