Immediate Reactions: Leafs 4, Sabres 3 (F/SO)
blog by Ryan Nagelhout • January 16, 2014 @ 12:21am
Sometimes I see tweets and I temporarily lose my mind. On Wednesday night in Toronto, Zemgus Girgensons makes a great play, drives to the net, and draws a penalty shot. He fails to score on the attempt, and one of the biggest writers in Canada tweets the following:
That Buffalo Sabres penalty shot was the Buffalo Sabres of penalty shots— Bruce Arthur (@bruce_arthur) January 16, 2014
And I go and do this:
It’s an easy joke. It wasn’t even really bad, but it’s from a convenient perspective. That’s what you say when you view hockey through the lens of “The Sabres are the worst team in hockey and the Leafs are good.”
I’m not a big fan of that lens. In fact, I think the gap between the Sabres and the Leafs is a lot smaller than everyone else in Canada seems to think.
On Wednesday a lot of that had to do with Ryan Miller, who was tremendous for 65 minutes in Buffalo’s 4-3 shootout loss at Air Canada Centre.
There were stretches of play the Leafs dominated offensively, pelting Miller with shots and carving casual loops into the ice around Buffalo’s defense.
Kessel, Kulemin and Rielly found the net for the Leafs but for every goal was a handful of close calls stopped by Team USA’s presumptive starting goaltender.
Then there were stretches where the Sabres found plenty of room to move on the ice. They counterattacked and generated a game-tying goal from Matt Ellis early in the second after Kessel gave Toronto the lead midway through period one.
Cody Hodgson tied the game 43 seconds into the third period, setting up a back-and-forth frame that featured chances on both ends.
What I’m saying is there’s a reason this game went into overtime. It was a close, and even, hockey game. All of them have been between these two teams this year. They’ve scored the same number of goals against one another, and the better team has just one regulation win.
The five Sabres-Maple Leafs games this season have been competitive and fun because the two teams are at similar levels of hockey-playing aptitude. That is to say, they’re not that good.
The Buffalo Sabres are no longer playing like the worst team in hockey, but the Leafs are also probably not a playoff team. That makes for close games, a lot of goals, and one fan-base with unreasonably high expectations unable to come to grips with what will probably happen to their hockey team.
As surprised as Sabres fans are that the team is both playing entertaining hockey and earning points these days, expectations remain low.
Ryan Miller is incredibly entertaining to watch between the pipes. A choice few forwards—mainly Latvian ones—are playing very well, and Ted Nolan is getting hard work out of his squad. But that doesn’t mean anyone is lining up for playoff tickets in Buffalo.
We know exactly what we are, and more importantly, the path that denotes where this team is headed is starting to become clear.
The same can’t be said for the Leafs, who are very much in medias res. WGR 550’s Jeremy White said it much better than I tried to say it on Wednesday night:
The Leafs are obsessed w/goaltending and missing boat on important things. The Sabres know they're bad. The Leafs pretend they're good.— Jeremy White (@JeremyWGR) January 16, 2014
The Leafs excelled in the skills competition because they have more skilled forwards than the Buffalo Sabres. James van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul both beat Miller. Matt Moulson matched JVR but Hodgson’s shot found James Reimer’s glove.
The Sabres needed a stop from Miller to keep the game going, and they got it. Tyler Bozak’s shot was stopped, but not completely. Miller lost it, the puck trickled over the line, and the Leafs got two points.
So what? Buffalo isn’t supposed to be winning games, and Toronto has nine shootout wins this season. They have a negative goal differential. They still struggle with a team that features Olympians, just like the Sabres.
No team in hockey should be jealous of the current state of the Sabres, but not every other team in hockey deserves our envy, either.
Personally, I cross the Maple Leafs off the list first. Then it’s frigid Winnipeg, who fired its coach on Sunday and whose ownership is essentially years behind even Terry Pegula in realizing when it’s time to start over.
The conclusion is the same one I’ve been coming to over the last few weeks: Everyone comes to a hockey game with a different perspective, and mine is starting to become more positive when it comes to the Sabres. That’s much better than I could have said about this team even a few weeks ago.
Fresh Hot Takes
— Remember Matt Moulson’s goal in the second period? You know the one. It gave Buffalo a brief 2-1 lead. Yeah, that probably wasn’t a goal.
If you watched that 2-on-1 develop live you probably thought to yourself “Man that thing must have been fast! It came right back out!” Well, it probably didn’t ever really go in. Maybe. Oh well.
— Girgensons had 13 hits on Wednesday night, a season-high throughout the league and a single body-bump off the all-time NHL record. I have no idea if hits are a real stat that #matters, but I am consistently blown away by his game.
He’s playing so well at such a young age. He might actually be Buffalo’s best forward. Of the season. He just does everything you want a forward to do.
If you’re struggling to find a reason to watch these games, No. 28 is your reason. Get cheap tickets and go see a game in person. Follow him on the ice on every shift. He’ll get you excited about the future of this team.
Zenon Konopka’s Rabbit, Hoppy, Takes a Game Off
Hoppy will be back on Saturday. He wanted to give STEVE OTT’S OTTERS a chance at the spotlight.
Look at that freaking thing. I want 300 of them.
Let’s Check in with Noted War Criminal John Scott
John actually had a pretty quiet night. Nothing to see here, other than the silent tears of a scratched Linus Omark.
Hot Twitter Takes of the Game
"Miller" chants start up again after the Sabres goal. Sure thing guys.— Joe Yerdon (@JoeYerdonPHT) January 16, 2014
All I could think about when I saw this is that Twitter is going to be a bloodbath during the Olympics. I can’t wait.
Buffalo has scored three goals in a game only 12 times this season. Four of those games were against the #Leafs, including tonight.— Randy Numbers (@randynumbers) January 16, 2014
I honestly think this has more to do with the Leafs than it does the Sabres. They’re just not good. I can accept it. Soon everyone else will, too.
It's reassuring to know that the Leafs are terrible. No matter what happens here tonight, the Leafs are still terrible. As God intended.— Kate Holzemer (@Katebits) January 16, 2014
It really is weirdly reassuring.
Hero Villain of the Night
They are all from Canada — There are six hockey players on the current Leafs roster that were not born under the red and white maple flag of the North. Four of those scoundrels are Americans. Is Don Cherry the Leafs’ GM? Did I miss something here?
Did You Know? — Canadians are the best hockey players ever. Of all time. Undisputed champions of the world. Sorry, I let a Canadian write this part.
Hit of the Night
This was a road game, so the best tune I heard all day was probably something I played in my car. I did overhear the PA play some Linkin Park. Nice to know those guys are still making money, I guess. Middle school was weird for everyone, you guys.
Saturday (1/18) vs. Columbus (7 p.m.) — What conference are they in again?
(Top photo courtesy of The Associated Press.)