TORONTO -- Let's cut right to the chase here. The Maple Leafs are ahead of the Sabres in the teams' post-tank rebuilds and there's no way they should be.
The Leafs' 4-3 win Tuesday in Air Canada Centre is far from a decisive factor in any referendum when you compare the teams. The way they rallied from a 2-0 deficit and then held on to move seven points ahead of Buffalo just was a glimpse into the bigger picture.
The Leafs have a coach who's going to the Hall of Fame, and a general manager and president who are already there. The Sabres have a coach with a Stanley Cup on his resume who's clearly causing fans and his own players to gnash their teeth far too much, a first-time GM and a club president who's about the most reviled figure in town these days.
(After all that's happened out in Orchard Park the last few weeks, you do remember Russ Brandon is president of the Sabres too, right?).
Leafs coach Mike Babcock, however, is clearly worried about too much too soon. Babcock told everyone in Leafs Nation to just chill on Monday (his words, not mine).
Too late. The Leafs are already in a playoff spot -- and with so many games in hand they're likely the second-best team in the Atlantic Division. The Sabres hit town off a solid win over Dallas but still last in the division.
Asking Babcock how surprised he was to have accelerated past the Sabres made him recoil after the morning skate.
"I never said that, you just said that right?" Babcock said. "Sometimes when you ask those questions then the next thing that comes out in the media is like I said that. Just so we know, I did not say that."
The room broke up because Babcock made sure to emphasize each of the last four words. He then proceeded to explain himself further.
"To tell you the truth, I don't spend a whole lot of time concerning myself on the other teams. We're building our own product here. We have a lot of work to do. I tried to say that yesterday. I told our players the same thing. We're 41 games in. Let's just try to get better every day. We do that, we have a chance to be a good team moving ahead. That's what we're trying to do."
Now obviously, the biggest thing in the Leafs favor is they tanked for half a season (Garrett Sparks in goal, anyone?) and were lucky enough to win the draft lottery to take Auston Matthews. The Sabres put together two of the worst seasons back-to-back in recent NHL history and didn't get the little ping pong ball bounce either time.
Jack Eichel is a terrific young player. But he's no Matthews. No shame in that. But it's the reality.
Matthews got his 22nd goal of the season Tuesday while going 13-5 on faceoffs -- including 10-4 in his head-to-head matchup with Eichel. Eichel had six shots on goal and 10 attempts. Matthews had five and eight.
"It was fun. You go against good players and it raises your compete level," Matthews said. "It was a good game by us. We dug a hole but we were resilient."
The Leafs' rookies entered Tuesday combining for 161 points this season -- including 60 goals. That's more than double any other NHL team. What's happened to the Sabres' prospects? Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste and Hudson Fasching, who has been injured most of the year in Rochester, have combined for three goals with the Sabres. When are they going to start to help?
Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma were talking playoffs in the summer. The Leafs were at least a year behind Buffalo. Next case.
This Sabres team has too much dead weight, especially in its bottom-6 forwards. The prospect corps is questionable. Just ask anyone watching another dreary season in Rochester. Murray completely botched building his defense too. On a lot of teams -- including the Leafs -- I bet Brendan Guhle would have been in the NHL all season. He was ready. We got force-fed Josh Gorges, Cody Franson and Zach Bogosian.
Babcock chose an Original Six franchise rather than a move to Buffalo The rest of this situation is far from luck. Murray overspent on too many mediocre veterans. His trade of a first-round pick for Robin Lehner continues to look mighty fine, doesn't it? Lehner gave up a ridiculous goal from the wall by Matt Martin that got the Leafs even and then threw a tantrum when he got yanked after Matthews beat him to put Toronto up 3-2.
Lehner skated to the bench, stared down Bylsma and his teammates, threw down his mask and spiked his blocker. Outstanding. You gave up the bad goal, not them. You think Babcock and Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello would put up with that act?
Meanwhile, the Leafs keep skating and skating. They're 9-1-1 in their last 11. The Sabres are last in the Atlantic. The Leafs are ready now. They're not interested in the glacial pace of a longterm plan. You have the horses, you let them run.
"We were going through a stretch where we weren't winning games and people were saying we were going to be another lottery pick," Matthews said. "Now we're in the playoffs so now we're a playoff team. We're halfway through the season now. There's a lot of ups and downs and we just have to move forward and get better."
"We're trying to grow up as a team and learn how to play and learn how to play when you're ahead," Babcock said. "Catch-up hockey is losing hockey. It's hard to chase the game all the time. We want to keep our foot on the gas and play. It's more fun that way."
Praise be. The Sabres have serious problems at hand -- maybe for many years -- with their rival up the QEW.
"With their youth, to see them climb into a playoff spot is a little unexpected," admitted Sabres center Ryan O'Reilly. "But watch the way they play. They score goals. the power play is dangerous. they work hard. The speed they have, the way they're playing is tough to play against."