Leafs sunk by slow start in loss to Sabres
Buffalo goalie Robin Lehner makes 43 saves to hand Toronto 6th loss in 8 games
Mike Babcock said he was "shocked" by how his 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 last eight games for Toronto.
The Leafs are just holding onto 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."
Saturday's slow start mirrored one from two days earlier against St. Louis, the Leafs outshot 17-4 in the first before ultimately falling 2-1 to the Blues in overtime.
Babcock thought his team "gifted" the Sabres all three goals with a series of defensive errors.
Eichel powers Buffalo
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.
The Leafs continued to give up quality chances early in the second before mounting some pushback amid some brief line shuffling from Babcock, which included Matthews and fellow star rookie Mitch Marner playing together for a shift or two. Rielly thought his team started to establish more of a presence down low in the Sabres zone.
"I think that at the start we were trying to create too much off the rush and maybe be a bit fancy," said Rielly. "I think that once we realized it wasn't working we started chipping pucks in and going to get 'em."
It was Marner who finally got the Leafs on the board with four minutes left in the middle frame on a Toronto power play. The 19-year-old rushed along the right side of the Sabres zone, circled the net and then fired an attempt that pinged off the right skate of defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen before caroming once more off Lehner's stick and into the goal.
It was his 15th goal of the year and team-leading 47th point, also the best for all NHL rookies this season.
Toronto kept pushing in the third, pelting Lehner with 16 shots while outshooting Buffalo 44-23 overall. It wasn't enough.
"You put all that energy in and you chase the game around for the next 45 minutes and yet your first 15 minutes sink you," Babcock said. "This was a good lesson for us."
The Leafs, now with 28 games remaining, have allowed almost four goals per-game during this wobbly stretch (2-4-2) while struggling immensely on the penalty kill (62.5 per cent). This comes on the heels of a scorching 16-game run in which 24 of a possible 32 points were picked up.
Toronto will have to gain steam again to keep pace in the crowded East with a pair of back-to-back sets ahead in the coming week, starting on Tuesday night against the surging New York Islanders.
"We're not worried about it being a long-term thing," Rielly said of the team's first-period struggles. "We're going to talk about it. We're going to improve on it and make sure that doesn't continue to happen."
Reinhart shuffled the loose puck over to Kane, who beat Andersen clean.