Maple Leafs unprepared for Sabres from get-go
TORONTO — Mike Babcock said he was “shocked” by how his Toronto Maple Leafs started against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night.
The Sabres scored two goals — 55 seconds apart — before the Leafs even got their first shot at Robin Lehner, Morgan Rielly’s attempt coming more than nine minutes into the opening frame. Buffalo added another goal — the second of the night for Evander Kane — before the period was through.
“We weren’t ready to play any way you look at it,” Babcock said after a 3-1 loss, the sixth defeat in the past eight National Hockey League games for Toronto.
The Leafs are just holding on to the Eastern Conference’s final wild-card spot with 61 points through 54 games. A flood of teams, now including the Sabres with 56 points, are nipping at their heels.
Babcock stressed to his team beforehand how little there was separating teams in the East, even those hovering near the bottom like Buffalo. He wondered afterward whether the message was received. “If you don’t prepare, you don’t win, it’s real simple,” Babcock said. “You can cheat the system once in a blue moon. Not good enough.”
Babcock thought his team “gifted” the Sabres all three goals with a series of defensive errors.
The first goal saw Auston Matthews get beat by fellow American Jack Eichel on a defensive zone draw, Sam Reinhart quickly shuffling off the loose puck to Kane, who fired the first of his two goals by Frederik Andersen.
Eichel, who finished with a career-high three assists, actually lost nine of his 14 draws against Matthews, but won both in the Toronto zone.
His partial break on the following shift drew a hooking penalty from Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner and another goal ultimately for the Sabres, this one on the power play from Reinhart. The Sabres somehow managed to get numbers behind the Leafs defence on the play, a streaking Kyle Okposo feeding the 21-year-old Reinhart for 2-0 lead.
Buffalo upped its lead to three when Eichel set up Kane’s 18th of the year behind the Toronto goal.
It was Mitch Marner who finally got the Leafs on the board with four minutes left in the middle frame on a Toronto power play, scoring his 15th goal of the season and team-leading 47th point, also best for NHL rookies this season.
Sabres centre Sam Reinhart celebrates his goal against Toronto in the first period of Buffalo’s 3-1 win against the Leafs on Saturday.