The Toronto Maple Leafs are going to the playoffs for the second straight year and that's enough to rile Sabres fans, be they ardent or casual. The issue this season is what happens once they get there.
Under the NHL's bogus divisional playoff format, the Leafs are almost certainly going to play the Tampa Bay Lightning or Boston Bruins in the first round. That makes them an underdog.
Right now, they're in the dog days of their season. Their playoff spot is in no jeopardy and they're not likely to climb out of third place in the Atlantic Division because they've played five fewer games than the Bruins.
Plus they're dealing with the third injury of the season to star Auston Matthews. After Monday's kooky 5-3 loss to the Sabres, they are 1-2-2 without Matthews. His sore shoulder can't heal fast enough. The Leafs have lost four straight (0-2-2) for the first time this season.
Now, this game was truly bizarre. The Sabres played pinball in getting a week's worth of puck luck. Two neat deflections in the first four minutes put Buffalo up for keeeps. And how about Ron Hainsey's shootaround off the skate of the referee right to Ryan O'Reilly in the circle for a quick shot and his 19th goal of the season?
"The puck went in our net," said Leafs coach Mike Babcock, whose club had a 41-24 advantage in shots on goal and a 65-40 margin in shot attempts. "To tell you the truth, it looked to me like we had the puck and we were controlling the play. When they would fire the puck, it would hit something and it's in our net. We couldn't keep it out of our net."
"That was pretty crazy," agreed goaltender Frederik Andersen. "It seemed like everything was finding a way to their sticks and towards the net. You can't think about that too much. All you can do is move forward and try to create your own bounces."
Not many went the Leafs' way in this one. Not many do whenever they come to town, even on a night when they easily had more than half the fans in the stands. The Sabres are 19-3-1 in their last 23 home games against the Leafs.
Matthews was supposed to be one of the star attractions of Saturday's Stadium Series game in Annapolis, Md., but he wasn't on the ice for the 5-2 loss to the Washington Capitals at the United States Naval Academy. The Leafs didn't look good in that one as the Capitals' stars acted the part in taking a 3-1 lead after the first period.
So Babcock knew what he wanted to see here Monday against the Sabres.
"We've got to focus on starting right and starting fast," Babcock said in the morning.
The coach then reiterated when he said after practice here Sunday, that he wanted to see his penalty killers get back to what made them a top-10 unit much of the season.
So much for both of those points. Both quickly went poof.
Connor Carrick took a high-sticking penalty at 1:23 of the first period and the puck was in the Leafs' net 30 seconds later on a lovely Sam Reinhart tip-in. At 3:43, Jason Pominville covered on a similar tip, with the final deflection coming off Nazem Kadri's skate. Both shots lows and strong from Rasmus Ristolainen.
A 2-0 deficit in less than four minutes. Hardly ideal.
Now, the Leafs found some equilibrium and their speed game to get even but they were playing uphill all night against the Sabres' week's worth of puck luck. The Leafs weren't happy with Johan Larsson's third-period goal either, claiming he interfered with Andersen. Kind of a bizarre challenge. Players are allowed to go for loose rebounds outside the crease and Andersen seemed to initiate a good deal of the contact. Babcock didn't agree.
"That tonight is goalie interference any way you look at it," he said. "That tonight, the goal is off. Coaches in league, no one knows what's going on. So we better get it solved. ... Let's get it fixed. Let's get it fixed before the playoffs so we all know the rules."
This Leafs team is highly skilled, well coached and supposed to be making a deep playoff run. Tomas Plekanac was acquired from Montreal to help with that point but has not made much of an impact yet. Even with Matthews' 28 goals on the shelf, the Leafs have plenty of firepower.
James van Riemsdyk, Kadri and Patrick Marleau all have 20 goals. Speedy Mitch Marner has 36 assists. So does defenseman Jake Gardiner. William Nylander has 35. The big question here is whether the defense holds up in the postseason.
All that didn't mean much Monday. The Sabres have five wins over Tampa Bay and Boston. Now add one against the Leafs. Babcock was worried and with good reason.
The Sabres won just 14 of their first 53 games. They've quickly added another half to that, taking seven of the last 13 (7-5-1).
"It's because they're playing right, they're competing hard and have had good specialty teams," he said of the Sabres. "It might not look it in the standings but both their penalty kill and power play have been doing a good job. They've been above the puck in the neutral zone, boxing out in the defensive zone and doing a lot of good things."
The kind of things Babcock needs to see more of from his club the rest of the way.
"I think we played pretty solid to be honest with you," Kadri said. "We controlled most of the play, got some unlucky bounces off skates and that was the result."