Kicking off the first of two divisional games on consecutive nights, the Toronto Maple Leafs traveled a short trip down the QEW to take on the Buffalo Sabres at the HSBC Arena in the second of six meetings between the two teams. After tonight’s 3-1 victory, the Sabres now hold a 2-0 record against the Leafs following a 3-2 shootout decision on Nov. 6 in Toronto.
During most of Monday’s victory over the Dallas Stars, The Leafs controlled the play on both sides of the ice, and looked to build on that momentum as they searched for their second road win in 6 games. In fact, not since Oct. 15 have the Leafs been able to find the win column while playing away from the Air Canada Centre. If that trend was to change, the offense needed to be a factor and become involved rather quickly, especially against a Buffalo Sabres team who has struggled at home. Although it is the obvious intention, Leaf forward and former Sabre, Clarke MacArthur said before the game, that the key to his team’s success would be opening the scoring early and building from there.
“When we score first you look at our team and we seem to pick up momentum and roll, then the other team has to come put of their comfort zone.”
It was easy to see how the first goal could have played a large role in the outcome of the game for either team, as neither have been able to maintain consistency within their offensive ranks. Jonas Gustavsson looked to continue his strong play in the absence of J.S. Giguere, while Ryan Miller, who has been a nightmare for the Maple Leafs got his first taste of the divisional match-up this season. Carrying his U.S. Olympic team to the Gold Medal Game against Canada, Head Coach Ron Wilson learned a lot about Miller. When asked prior to the game on how his team looked to solve Miller, Wilson had no answers.
“I have no idea,” Wilson said. “If I had the answer, we’d score a lot more goals. He’s a big tall guy who does a great job covering the lower half of the net, and like with all great goaltenders, his concentration level is unbelievable. Every game you’ve scored on him, you’ve earned it.”
The first period was an emotional and spirited affair as both teams came out firing. A Paul Gaustad hit from behind on Phil Kessel ignited the Leafs bench and their emotions would eventually get the best of them. After Nikolai Kulemin was also hit with what looked to be a charge by Patrick Kaleta, Luke Schenn came to his defense and dropped the gloves in his effort to send a message. Adding to a first period already filled with animosity was Colton Orr as he looked to settle a score with Gaustad for his hit on Kessel. Orr received an untimely 6 minutes in penalties on the play which lead to a Jordan Leopold power play goal, and a 1-0 Sabres lead. Things quickly began to unravel for the Leafs as Kris Versteeg took a selfish penalty, getting his stick up on Nathan Gerbe twice behind the play. The inevitable result from the poor judgment became reality for Versteeg and the Leafs as Thomas Vanek beat Jonas Gustavsson from the point and lifted his team to a 2-0 lead. Versteeg would maintain a regular shift despite his stupidity. The power play goals sparked the Sabres offense and the game may have been well out of reach following the first period had Gustavsson not made four or five huge saves to keep his team in it.
The second period started out where the first had left off, as the Sabres continued to pile the chances on Gustavsson, only to be turned away by the Swedish netminder. The middle frame progressed and the Leafs seemed to find their legs as they began to generate some chances. The change in pace caused the Sabres to take a few penalties, and the Leafs looked to get on the board. Unable to manufacture offense on the power play and with Ryan Miller up to the task when needed, the Leafs found themselves still trailing by two heading into the third period.
The alarming trend surrounding the Maple Leafs offense or lack there of took center stage in the third period. Their inability to create traffic in front of the steady Ryan Miller forced the Leafs power play into mistakes, and eventually lead to a Patrick Kaleta short-handed goal, and the 3-0 Sabre’s lead. Making matters worse for the struggling offense, it was the help of Sabre’s defenseman Jordan Leopold that gave the Leafs their only goal of the game. A funny bounce deflected off Ryan Miller and in an attempt to clear it from harms way, Leopold put it right on the stick of Phil Kessel who slid it passed a sprawling Miller. That would be it from the Leafs offense and like a bad re-run their effort simply wasn’t good enough as they fall to just one win in their last 13 games against the Sabres.
For Head Coach Ron Wilson and GM Brian Burke, the answers from within are no more. The solution to their sputtering and inconsistent offense cannot be found in the current configuration. Nazem Kadri, although playing well at times, has not been effective and has yet to find his first career goal. Phil Kessel is scoring with ten on the year, however the timely goals necessary to lift his team into a game are missing. Counted on by default to create those chances for Kessel is Tyler Bozak, and the young pivot is mired in a pressure filled sophomore slump. Without the luxury of options it will be up to this current crop of players, a group that Brian Burke believes in, to find their way. The belief is evident among Brian Burke, but with his Christmas trade freeze around the corner, just how long he will continue to believe is in question.
Without much rest the Leafs will travel to Ottawa tonight as they look to get right back at it for the Battle of Ontario tomorrow night. Once again deserving a better fate, Jonas Gustavsson is set for his second start in a row. If nothing else the Leaf players owe an urgent and steady performance to their hard working goaltender who has given them a chance in every game he’s played.
About the Author
Written by RJ Emptage
Operations Manager of a retail chain in Southern Ontario (Sports Obsession). Specialize in licensed sports apparel and novelties (Visit sportsobsession.ca). Being from the Hamilton area I grew up and into a die-hard Toronto Maple Leaf Fan, and look forward to a bright blue and white future...(I know that sounds crazy doesn't it?) Love all things sports and the next best thing to playing them, is talking them!