A tiny bit of luster might have come off the rivalry between the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs. Part of that is the schedule. The teams only meet four times in the regular season. Part of that is the on-ice product. Neither team has been a playoff contender in recent seasons. Buffalo is headed toward its fifth straight season without a postseason appearance; Toronto its third.
But the head-to-head meetings always seem to have a bit of an edge, regardless of the standings.
That’s likely to continue Thursday night at First Niagara Center when Sabres host the Leafs at 7.
With both teams off on Wednesday after playing back-to-back road games, the surprise news came out of Sabres camp late in the afternoon. The team announced in a terse press release that goaltender Robin Lehner underwent successful surgery on his right ankle and “will be unavailable for the remainder of the team’s games this season.”
Lehner suffered a high ankle sprain in the season opener and missed 39 games. He returned to the Sabres lineup on Jan. 15 and played 21 before apparently again injuring the ankle. He had missed the last six games. Lehner went 5-9-5 with a 2.47 goals against average and a .924 save percentage.
Odds are high then that Chad Johnson could get his fourth start against the Leafs. Buffalo holds a 2-1 advantage in the season series, but the Sabres haven’t played their best hockey against Toronto.
The first win came on Oct. 21 when Matt Moulson scored the game-deciding goal in a shootout for a 2-1 win at First Niagara Center.
Then there were games at Air Canada Centre.
The Sabres drove away from Toronto with a 4-3 shootout win on March 7, but the team was largely a no-show for the first two and a half periods as the Leafs built a 3-1 lead. In the final 13 minutes of regulation, Jack Eichel and Evander Kane scored off turnovers to tie the game. Sam Reinhart notched the game-deciding goal in the shootout.
The performance was worse on March 19. With superstar rookie Jack Eichel out of the lineup due to illness, the Sabres were lackluster from puck drop to final horn in a 4-1 loss.
“We knew our last game against them was crap and same thing tonight,” Sabres forward Marcus Foligno said after that game. “It wasn’t there. It wasn’t a full 60. Seemed like when we started getting frustrated we played a little bit better but they capitalized on their chances because they had more.
“We didn’t have a lot of compete,” coach Dan Bylsma said after that loss. “We didn’t have a lot of battle.”
The Leafs may be flirting with 30th place, but their roster is filled with players hungry to make an impression.
The team has a solid group of players who have spent most of the season with the Leafs’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. Most notable have been the additions of William Nylander, who has four goals and seven points in 16 games and Zach Hyman who has four goals and six points in 16 games. Connor Brown picked up three assists for the Leafs in their 5-2 win against the Florida Panthers Tuesday night, giving him six points in seven NHL games this season.
“They’ve got a lot of guys who are working hard right now and trying to make the lineup for next year and they’re not going to take a shift off,” Foligno said.
Both Toronto and Buffalo are coming off back-to-back games. The Leafs split their Florida road trip, losing to Tampa Bay, 3-0, on Monday then knocking off the Panthers, 5-2, on the strength of three power play goals Tuesday.
The Sabres has plenty of special teams action on Tuesday as well – only a bit more chaotic, scoring two power play goals but giving up two shorthanded goals in Pittsburgh. In the end, Buffalo dropped a 5-4 shootout loss to the Penguins after losing to the Red Wings, 3-2, in Detroit on Monday.