Breaking down Buffalo’s 3-2 win in Toronto

March 27, 2018
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It was the third matchup of the month between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Buffalo Sabres but the first between fellow American superstars Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel.

The Leafs controlled the play for most of the night but it was the Sabres who stole victory from the jaws of defeat, backed by an impressive goaltending display from Chad Johnson.

The Sabres opened the scoring just under three and a half minutes into the first period. Eichel strips Matthews of the puck down low and Zemgus Girgensons passes it back to Eichel, who undresses Fredrik Andersen for his 23rd of the season.

While exciting to talk about, matching up Matthews with Eichel (and vice versa) is probably a bad idea. Both are better known for their offense and when you have guys like Ryan O’Reilly and Nazem Kadri in your lineup, they should be taking on the defensive responsibility of containing the other team’s top player.

The Leafs would respond with two quick goals late in the second period. The first coming from Kadri, who takes a great feed from Mitch Marner and beats Johnson from the slot for his 30th of the year.

It’s a nice shot from Rasmus Ristolainen’s evil nemesis, but let’s back it up a few frames.

I’d really like to know how this ends up being a goal against. Instead of the hard around Casey Nelson yelled for, Scandella opts to wait it out and gets knocked off the puck by ageless wonder Patrick Marleau, which in turn allows Marner to make a clean pass to Kadri in the slot.

The second Leafs goal came from the aforementioned Marleau just over a minute and a half later. The Sabres crumbled after the Kadri goal as, literally right off the faceoff, Jason Pominville takes a high sticking penalty putting the Leafs on the man advantage.

On the ensuing power play, Marleau collects the rebound off Morgan Rielly’s shot/pass hybrid for his 25th of the year, giving the Leafs a 2-1 lead heading into the third period.

The Sabres would tie things up in the third as Casey Nelson’s shot has eyes, going through a couple of screens before redirecting off Leafs defenseman Roman Polak.

Much like the Leafs’ double tally in the second, the Sabres would get their second goal of the period and retake the lead just a minute and a half later.  Eichel uses his speed to beat Nikita Zaitsev to the puck and puts a backhander past Andersen for the 3-2 lead.

This isn’t great defending from Zaitsev, but Andersen has to stop that puck.

While it’s always nice to see the Sabres beat the Leafs, I can’t even pretend to celebrate this one.

This kind of looks like one team showed up for work while the other arrived halfway through on three hours of sleep and missing half their lineup. This is a classic example of “The best defense is a strong offense”. The Leafs were in total control of the puck and fired shots at will from just about anywhere, forcing the Sabres defensemen to collapse and Johnson to channel his inner Ryan Miller circa 2010.

The shot attempt numbers are bad enough, but those are ludicrous scoring chance totals. The fact that the Leafs managed 53 is one thing but to actually double a team in scoring chances at that margin is unbelievable. One team relied on generating as many chances as they can, the other relied on capitalizing on what few they could. You can guess which one is more sustainable over the course of an 82-game season (hint, it’s the one used by the team going to the playoffs).

The expected goals for numbers didn’t look kindly on the Sabres either. Toronto finished with an XG of 3.97 while the Sabres managed an XG of 2.49. At 5v5, that’s not a bad number to be posting if you’re the Sabres, but allowing a team to generate so many good chances that they post an XG just below four is awful. The Sabres defensemen had a tough night handling simple clearing attempts, zone exits and even completing initial passes in their own end.

Corsica.Hockey

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Aside from the fourth line, the Sabres got manhandled in the matchups. The Brendan Guhle-Rasmus Ristolainen pair got taken to school by pretty much every Leafs player except for maybe Travis Dermott.

Other Notes:

The Guhle-Ristolainen pair needs to end. The last thing a rookie defenseman who loves jumping in on the rush needs is heavy ice time and a defense partner who can’t play defense at 5v5. It may be an ideal pairing sometime in the near future, but for now they’re better off putting Guhle in a position to succeed where he can grow and take his game to the next level.

Sam Reinhart has just one point in his last five games. It was a fun ride while it lasted for Reinhart, who was producing at nearly a point per game pace over a 30 plus game stretch. The regression back to the mean was to be expected and while the first and second half of his season represented two extremes, the total body of work is likely Reinhart’s ceiling. You can count on him for anywhere between 45 to 55 points a season, but I think the overall work falls just short of what makes a core player as he rarely moves the needle with any sort of consistency. This is something Jason Botterill and company should take into consideration during contract negotiations.

Speaking of Botterill, he was hard at work the last few days signing defenseman Will Borgen and 2017 first round pick Casey Mittelstadt within a 24 hour window. Borgen will head to Rochester on an amateur tryout, with his entry level deal kicking in next season. Mittelstadt will join the Sabres and, barring any setbacks, will play Thursday night against the Detroit Red Wings. While the addition of Mittelstadt is certainly exciting for a team that has had hardly any, it’s important to temper expectations with a team as bad this one.

As I mentioned in the tweets above, Mittelstadt’s primary assist totals fall in line with some of the other more notable NCAA first round picks over the last few years, but his grand total falls well short. Part of this can be explained by the University of Minnesota not having a great hockey team this year around Mittelstadt, but that’s all the more reason to keep expectations in check as he joins an even worse hockey team relative to their league. Enjoying the talent without setting the bar too high is the best way to watch the prospects coming through the organization over the next year or so.

Michael Ghofrani
About Michael Ghofrani

Michael Ghofrani has been working on finding hockey statistics that can break down and explain certain game events. He's also a Sabres follower from Toronto doing his best to fend off Leafs Nation.

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