TORONTO -- One very negative vagary of this year's NHL schedule is the lack of play between the Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs. The teams met Oct. 21 in Buffalo, a 2-1 shootout victory for the Sabres, and haven't seen each other since. It's been 61 games for the Sabres between matchups with Toronto for Buffalo, and tonight's game in Air Canada Centre is the first of three meetings in the next 12 games.
"It's weird we haven't seen them in a long time and it's the first time coming here all year," captain Brian Gionta said today. "That's definitely different. They're a young team that will be full of energy. It can be dangerous to play a team like that."
"Coming here, I was very much aware of that," Evander Kane said of the Buffalo-Toronto rivalry. "I know we played them at home there back in October and it was a good battle, a good game. We haven't played them in a while. Their team has changed since we last saw them and it will be interesting to see what happens tonight."
The Leafs are 30th in the NHL's overall standing, having lost five straight, while the Sabres are 26th. Toronto is 1-8-1 in the last 10 and 2-11-1 in its last 14. After going 13-8-5 in November and December, the Leafs are a very tanky 7-18-3 since the New Year.
"It's easy to sag and feel sorry for yourself and be mentally soft," said coach Mike Babcock. "Why don't we dig in a little harder? Is it one shift? Is it one faceoff that gets you over the top? I don't think anyone here has lost sight of the plan and where we're going. At the same time, when the game starts we're trying to win every single night. Don't ever kid yourself. We're playing our players that way, trying to find a way to get two points and feel good about ourselves."
There are 11 players in the Toronto lineup in the October game not in it tonight, be it from a bunch of trades (notably Dion Phaneuf and James Reimer), injuries (Joffrey Lupul and James van Riemsdyk) or movement to and from the AHL.
"We looked back to the notes from the game we played them and there's not a lot of lineup consistency to that game and personnel consistency," said Sabres coach Dan Bylsma. "We're going to see a young team, an energized team and some players that can have some skill."
Jack Eichel's first meeting with a big horde of Toronto media came outside the dressing room after the morning skate. When he emerged from the room and scanned the biggest crowd waiting for him since his homecoming in Boston, Eichel said, "So this is Toronto, huh? Wow." Eichel said he's stoked about the rivalry too.
"It's going to be great. That was an emotional game for us the last time, a big game, and then you don't play them for basically three-quarters of the season," he said. "It's a good stretch for us with a lot of games this month with three against our rival. You want to come out on the better end."
Bylsma said he spent some time today talking to returning Sabres like Zemgus Girgensons and Matt Moulson "trying to drum up the rivalry."
"We had them in the beginning of the year and I heard an awful lot about the rivalry, the fans, the fans down to Buffalo," Bylsma said. " I'm actually anxious to see how it plays out now. We know where they're at in the standings, we know where we're at in the standings. We know there's been some turnover in their roster, a little bit in ours."
It's going to be a battle of backup goaltenders as Chad Johnson (14-14-3/2.45/.917) starts for Buffalo against Toronto's Garrett Sparks (3-3-0/2.42/.916). Robin Lehner has played four straight games for the Sabres and nine of the last 10.