The precocious Toronto Maple Leafs learned a lot of things about winning in the regular season, but one lesson remains – Buffalo.
No matter what edition of the Maple Leafs ventured down the Queen Elizabeth Way to the Peace Bridge border crossing and whatever arena they played in – the old Memorial Auditorium or today's KeyBank Center – the results have not been good for Toronto. Since the Sabres joined the NHL in 1970, they have a 69-26-8 record at home against the Maple Leafs.
While this season's Leafs have come a long way in learning how to win in the NHL, especially how to close out a third-period lead, Buffalo remains a challenge. While it may not be the black hole it was for Leaf teams in previous years, KeyBank Center, which the Leafs visit for the final time this season Monday night, is not a friendly place despite the thousands of Leaf fans who pack the place for every game against the Sabres.
The Sabres, who are well out of the playoff race in seventh place in the Atlantic Division with a 32-34-12 record, should not present much of a challenge to the Leafs. Toronto and Buffalo have split four games this season and the Leafs are 1-1 at KeyBank Center. However, their past visit, a 5-2 loss on March 25, was nearly a catastrophe. The Leafs turned in one of their worst efforts in the past six weeks and were lucky to escape the joint without a serious injury. Goaltender Frederik Andersen was knocked out of the game after the first period when he banged heads with Sabres forward William Carrier.
Fortunately for the Leafs, Andersen was not seriously injured. He missed only one game and returned to top form quickly, beating the Nashville Predators and the Detroit Red Wings in his past two outings.
However, despite a 10-2-1 record in their past 13 games, the Leafs were only able to move briefly into second place in the Atlantic after Saturday's 5-4 win over the Red Wings. Thanks to Boston's 3-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday, the Bruins took over second place from the Maple Leafs by one point with 92, although the Leafs have two games in hand.
This places much importance on Monday's game in Buffalo against the Sabres, as the Leafs close out the regular season with five games in seven nights. But the last four of those games come against tough opponents – the Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets. There are also two sets of back-to-back games, Buffalo and Washington on Monday and Tuesday, and Pittsburgh and Columbus on Saturday and Sunday to close out the regular season.
The importance of the Buffalo game was shown in head coach Mike Babcock's goaltender selections. After the Leafs held a brief optional practice Sunday in Buffalo, Babcock said Andersen will start against the Sabres while backup Curtis McElhinney gets the call for the second game of the back-to-back set against the Capitals, who are first in the Eastern Conference.
Given the way the Leafs played since early March, there is reason for them to be optimistic they can shake the hex in Buffalo that has long plagued the team. No one personifies that more than rookie centre Auston Matthews, who raised his game markedly in the past several weeks. Starting with the Leafs' first game in their recent 13-game run, Matthews went five games without a point and then ran up seven goals and four assists in the next eight to easily make himself the front-runner in the race for the Calder Trophy, which goes to the NHL's rookie of the year, with 38 goals and 28 assists.
"He's got unbelievable determination," Babcock said Sunday. "But he's had some moments this year where it doesn't go for him and when it doesn't go in the net for him he's like a lot of scorers, he gets a little [pushy], he wants to get through it.
"Everybody in life, and I don't care what you do, there is momentary doubt. You wonder, 'Gee, am I ever going to score? Or am I prepared for this speech? Am I prepared for this presentation or this interview?' That's life. You push through it and you believe in yourself."
Like his teammates, according to Babcock, Matthews is a far cry from the player he was at the start of the season.
"He's got unbelievable determination, work ethic, understanding. He wants to be good," Babcock said. "I think he's improved drastically from the start of the year. The pace of his game has gone way up, he is way more aware defensively, way more aware in his own zone, plays way faster."