Business must have been booming at the Peace Bridge late Saturday afternoon.
Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs always make their presence known in Buffalo. But what we saw Saturday night in KeyBank Center was a full-scale takeover.
There was a roar when the Leafs took the ice for warmups, an eruption when they entered to start play and "O Canada" was sang at levels you never hear in the building.
Air Canada Centre South then erupted with Connor Brown's tying goal at 9:30 of the first period. All the noise was to embarrassing levels that you hope the Sabres remember as an organization. The goal here, of course, is to have the whole place cheering for them, to not have their season-ticket holders cash out on the season and do a money grab from Toronto fans.
"It was great. A lot of blue jerseys in the stands, a lot of Maple Leaf jerseys," said rookie sensation Auston Matthews. "We travel pretty well, all across the country. But especially when you're just across the border here in Buffalo, it's definitely an exciting game."
The excitement was mostly one-sided. The Leafs lost goalie Frederik Andersen to a mysterious injury after one period and their playoff express went off the rails for a night with a 5-2 Sabres victory. The Leafs were 7-1-1 in their previous nine games and held a three-point lead for third place in the Atlantic Division. But they couldn't match the Sabres' intensity.
After the morning skate, Nazem Kadri was recalling a game here late in the 2013 lockout season, the last time the Leafs made the playoffs. Kadri scored a goal and saw a bunch of Leafs fans at one corner of the rink. They were celebrating wildly and he joined them, leaping into the glass as the fans loved it. Getty Images captured the picture, which quickly spread across Canada.
"That's one of my favorite pictures. I've got it actually on my wall," Kadri said. "It seems like you're at the ACC in that picture with the amount of Leaf fans in the backdrop. That's been the story anywhere we go. The Leaf Nation follows us and supports us through thick and thin. It was frustrating in years past but now the future's bright."
No question about that. And the folks in Blue and White, who traveled during so many tough times, were ready Saturday night in the midst of a playoff push. They didn't have much to yell over.
Full marks to the Sabres, who seemed riled by the passion in the stands for the other team. Jack Eichel, among others, has clearly tired of hearing about the Leafs and how their rebuild is ahead of Buffalo. When Eichel scored his second goal of the second period, he headed for the glass in the same end of the rink where Kadri was four years ago, right for two Leafs fans in jerseys in the front row. Banged the glass and even spit on the ice in front of them.
Our house, indeed.
"We're not happy with the way we came out. They're a good team that has good players," said Toronto defenseman Morgan Rielly. "They capitalized on their chances and we let that one get away from us and in that span they buried a couple."
Specifically, the Sabres got power-play goals from Eichel and Dmitry Kulikov in a span of just over three minutes early in the second period to turn a 2-2 game into a 4-2 Buffalo lead. And Eichel scored his goal just 25 seconds after Matthews netted his 34th, tying Wendel Clark's rookie record for the Leafs set in 1986.
Matthews said the Leafs' pre-scouted Eichel hard but were unable to stop him.
"He's obviously got that shot on the power play. That's on us," Matthews said. "Have to make sure we're in the lane and stuff like that. He's got that stride, that speed and strength. He can make plays all over the ice."
One game, no matter the result, is not a referendum on the teams' rebuilds. Nor is even one season, which is likely going to end with the Sabres on the golf course and the Leafs hoping to be in the playoffs for the first time in a full campaign since 2004.
Toronto may have leapfrogged ahead of Buffalo, at least for now with an 11-point advantage, and re-energized its fan base. Still, the Blue and White crowd routinely shows in Buffalo but rarely gets rewarded. The Sabres are 18-2-1 in their last 21 at home against Toronto.
"We weren't very good. For whatever reason, they were quicker, they were better, they were hungrier," Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "Obviously coming into the game, I thought we had more to play for than they did but pride is a wonderful thing. If you get your group to dig in like they did tonight, they looked good and we didn't. So, good for them."
By the third period, the Leafs fans were silent and many made their exit. There were no more "Go Leafs Go" chants. For one night, the Sabres had the upper hand. At least for this year, the Leafs are hoping to get the last laugh.