The Leafs got off to a rough start in this one, as less than 5 minutes into the game, Roman Polak attempted to block a Buffalo shot, but instead tipped the puck up off the crossbar and behind Frederick Andersen who was able to avert disaster for the time being by falling on the puck for a whistle, but it would only get worse from there. Moments later Jack Eichel would win a faceoff directly to Evander Kane, who would make absolutely no mistake in firing the puck past Freddie Andersen to make it 1-0 Sabres. Less than a minute later, Buffalo would head to a power play, as Jake Gardiner went off for hooking. On the ensuing power play, Jack Eichel would get the puck to Kyle Okposo, who slid it across to Sam Reinhart for the goal to make it 2-0 Sabres. The Leafs would settle down a bit at that point until a power play late in the period, where it seemed they couldn’t get organized and seemed to sap the confidence right out of them. Almost immediately thereafter, Eichel would find Kane for his 2nd goal of the period, also giving Eichel 3 assists and giving Buffalo a 3-0 lead, which is how the 1st would come to an end.
As the 2nd started, the Leafs still seemed about half an inch off on everything. Passes were out of place, or too hard, or off a skate. Things just weren’t clicking for them. That changed about halfway through the period, when Mike Babcock briefly swapped Connor Brown and Mitch Marner in line rotation as well as Connor Carrick and Nikita Zaitsev on defence. The changes seemed to spark the Leafs as they started to record chances, and soon drew a power play. On that powerplay, Babcock would set the lines back as they were and immediately be rewarded as Mitch Marner managed to bank a shot from behind the net, off Rasmus Ristolainen, off Buffalo goalie Robin Lehner’s rear and in to make it 3-1 Sabres. The goal would go right to their legs as the crowd also came alive. Auston Matthews slid a shot past Lehner at the post and through the crease, sadly there would be no Leafs there to finish the play and the 2nd Period would end 3-1 Sabres.
The Leafs came out in the 3rd period and absolutely took it to the Sabres, recording shot after shot, chance after chance, while the Sabres seemed content to just sit back and try to block shots, clogging up the zone, basically hoping to hang on as the Leafs swarmed around them. The Leafs nearly scored with just over 7 minutes left, when William Nylander fired a shot on net that dropped down between the feet of Lehner. Nazem Kadri dove at the puck, but there was no clear view of it entering the net, combined with the fact that Kadri bowled Lehner into the cage resulted in the play being deemed no goal. The Leafs continued to press the Sabres, but Lehner was up to the task, and Buffalo hung on for a 3-1 victory. Credit the young Leafs team for never giving up, especially Mitch Marner, who tackled the much bigger Rasmus Ristolainen to the ice when the latter had Auston Matthews in a headlock with 3.7 seconds left in the game. This was another chapter in a rivalry that will continue to intensify as both of these young teams grow. The Leafs are in action next on Tuesday night, as they’ll look to make the New York Islanders their valentines.
Buffalo Goal 4:13 E. Kane (17) assisted by S. Reinhart and J. Eichel
Buffalo Goal 5:08 S. Reinhart (12) (power play) assisted by K. Okposo and J. Eichel
Buffalo Goal 18:02 E. Kane (18) assisted by J. Eichel and J. Falk
Toronto Goal 15:57 M. Marner (15) (power play) assisted by T. Bozak and N. Zaitsev
MIKE BABCOCK POST GAME