Whether the Leafs deserved better, I’ll leave that to VLM readers to discuss. But I think it’s fair to say that we knew going in the Sabres would be ready for this one—and they were.
I say this not just because teams with a new coach almost always play hard and well for the incoming guy, but because the Sabres had brought back one of the best motivators in hockey—none other than Ted Nolan.
Nolan is a master of getting individual players to be their best. He has a way of connecting with his players like few coaches can, and he inspires performances that go beyond what would normally be considered someone’s capabilities. His teams generally over-achieve. To me, he is that good a coach.
So you just knew the Leafs would be in tough in Buffalo. And I don’t expect Nolan—or his team—to take their foot off the pedal back at the ACC on Saturday night.
Just a couple of notes and observations, and I’ll leave it for you to opine on the contest:
- This was not the fight-filled affair many predicted. Some forecast exactly that because of the John Scott pre-season dust-up with the Leafs, the Corey Tropp injury in his fight with DaVane in pre-season and the fact that Scott was back in the Sabre lineup after his recent suspension. Throw in that Nolan was back behind the Buffalo bench and his guys would want to impress and show him they belong, and fireworks were anticipated. But I think Nolan absolutely insisted on smart hockey—tough hockey, yes, but smart hockey. So no bad penalties and no unnecessary fights were the order of the day. For one night, it worked wonders.
- Not to harp on an old wound, but Ashton, Orr and McLaren each played about 5 minutes on the night. Nolan’s fourth-line guys saw more ice: Tropp played close to 9 minutes; McCormick played just under 10 minutes and even Scott played more than 7 minutes. Does this tell us anything?
- Rielly sat for the second time in three games. Do we make anything of this, other than the obvious fact that Fraser is back?
- Ehrhoff obviously made a game-saving block on van Riemsdyk in the dying seconds when the Leafs were applying pressure. The Buffalo net was wide open but the veteran defenseman made a huge play.
- Kessel had been at his offensive best through the first dozen or so games of the season. He has been quieter of late, at least in terms of production, with a single goal and no assists over his last half dozen games. In truth, this has been Kessel’s norm over the years here. There are always dry spells, though he is often dangerous out there.
- Franson led the team in ice time, I believe.
- We haven’t scored much lately, have we? I will assume this is a blip, not a trend. (And yes, injuries are part of the problem, for sure.)
Some fans may be frustrated with a loss against a Sabre team that had won all of, what, four games so far this season? I get that. But there is the reality of missing Kadri, Bolland and Bozak. It's difficult enough to win in the NHL when you have a full lineup. But it is especially challenging when you have no healthy centres with offensive capabilities.
And I can’t stress enough what for me is the "Nolan factor". It will make a difference, I believe, for the Sabres the rest of this season. He will have these guys playing. But Toronto had to know the home side would be charged up Friday night.
As for the Leafs, well, not to overblow one game, but given that the Leafs have lost three in a row, I suspect they aren’t keen to make it four at home against what had been a struggling Sabres squad. I’m guessing Reimer plays—and plays well.
It might be a nice time for the fans to give the guys a boost with a better than usual welcome at the ACC Saturday night. Not that the Leafs are in a death spiral, but struggling teams, especially one not scoring, can always stand a little extra support at home. They’ve not been at their best, they’re missing key guys, but they could have won any one of their last three games, despite the things we may not like about their game.