Toronto Maple Leafs Look To Harpoon Buffalo Sabres
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres will play game one of back-to-back games Friday night. Toronto will enter the game with their top three centres out of the lineup thanks to injuries to David Bolland (ankle) and Tyler Bozak (lower body) and a questionable hit on Minnesota Wild netminder Niklas Backstrom, which resulted in the suspension of Nazem Kadri for three games.
As a result of Toronto’s slim pickings down the middle, Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle will have to be creative. James Van Riemsdyk looks to be Carlyle’s first line centre, with Jay McClement jumping up to second line duty from the fourth line and recent call-up Jerred Smithson assuming third line duty.
Friday night’s game will mark the return of interim Head Coach Ted Nolan to the Sabres. Nolan, who posted a 73-72-19 record with Buffalo in his first tour of duty with the club (1995-97), was hired to take over the head coaching duties replacing Ron Rolston. Former Sabre Pat Lafontaine was also brought into the mix, replacing long-time general manager Darcy Regier.
Nolan and Lafontaine have their work cut out for them. Heading into tonight’s tilt against the blue and white, Buffalo sits in last place with a horrific 4-15-1 record (9 points). The Sabres rank 23rd on the power play (13.6%), 20th on the penalty kill (81.2%), 30th in goals per game (1.65) and 27th in goals against per game (3.15).
Comparatively, despite a recent decline in offense, the Maple Leafs own the sixth best power play (22.2%) and the 12th best goals per game average (2.78). Defensively, Toronto ranks eighth on the penalty kill (84.9%) and sixth in goals against per game (2.28).
If not for the tremendous play of both James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier (who have combined for a 1.54 goals-against average over the past seven games) between the pipes the Leafs would be in a pile of trouble. That said, after a great start to the season, the Buds have gone 5-4-1 in their past ten. When you consider Toronto’s struggles down the middle, fans are not encouraged about the Leafs’ chances, even against the lowly Sabres, who always play Toronto tough.
Since being acquired from the New York Islanders in return for Thomas Vanek, Matt Moulson has eight points (2 goals, six assists) in seven games with the Sabres. After, Moulson (17 points on the season), and Cody Hodgson (15 points on the season) the Sabres have very little forward depth, with the likes of Drew Stafford (six points), Tyler Ennis (six points) and Steven Ott (five points) all under-performing.
On the backend the Sabres have been brutal. Tyler Myers is sitting with three points and a minus-9 rating on the season, while Christian Ehrhoff has been equally inept, sporting four assists and a minus-4 rating.
Between the pipes, the once unbeatable Ryan Miller has looked like a brick of swiss cheese, posting a 3-11-0 record to go along with a pathetic 3.28 goals against average and a paltry .916 save percentage.
Friday night’s tilt will also mark the first time the Sabres and Leafs have met since the Phil Kessel/John Scott/David Clarkson debacle. While fans and teammates may be looking for retribution, Clarkson would be wise to avoid the temptation to go toe-to-toe with Scott tonight as he is much more valuable to the Leafs in the lineup than out.
For the Maple Leafs to be successful they will need to play a disciplined game with an emphasis on team speed and an aggressive forecheck. Bernier and Reimer have been solid, so it wouldn’t hurt the Maple Leafs to take a few chances against the Sabres, who struggle in all areas of the ice.
Toronto will be looking for a big game from both Phil Kessel (one goal in his past five games) and James van Riemsdyk (one goal in his past five games), while also asking Joffrey Lupul (two goals in his past five games) and Mason Raymond (two goals in his past five games) to step up their play.
Down three centres, it’s hard to imagine the Leafs being successful in the faceoff circle. Toronto will have to take advantage of their power play opportunities and pounce on any mistakes the Sabres defense makes.
In an attempt to get the crowd going, and in order to comply with Nolan’s style of play, look for the Sabres to play a simple game, featuring a defense-first style with lot’s of hitting. Toronto likes to bang, so look for the likes of Colton Orr, David Clarkson, Mark Fraser and Dion Phaneuf to get physical.
Buffalo is an abysmal 1-8-1 at Home this season. They are also one of the few teams to allow more shots against than the Maple Leafs, albeit a slim margin of 36.9—36.4. The poor Home record, paltry defense and inability to score should combine to derail the Sabres. Take the Maple Leafs to win a close one, 3-2.