Here are five takeaways from the Maple Leafs’ 4-3 shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres Monday at Air Canada Centre:
Soshnikov keeps on making an impact.
Rookie Nikita Soshnikov was participating in only his fifth career NHL game Monday, but once again, the 22-year-old winger stood out for both his skill and determination. First, on the first shift of the game, he made a terrific backhanded pass to teammate Leo Komarov, who scored on the play to give Soshnikov his first assist as a Leaf and his third point in his past four games.
Soshnikov suffered a scare shortly after that when he fell awkwardly into the boards, but he returned before the end of the first frame and went on to play 13:52. Playing on a line with Komarov and Nazem Kadri, he gives the Leafs lineup the skill, speed and determination needed to keep the opposition honest.
“He just looks like a hockey player to me,” head coach Mike Babcock said of Soshnikov. “He catches guys from behind, he forechecks, he runs guys, every team’s mad at him every night. I like that a lot. And I play him against the best players every night. That’s pretty good for me.”
“He’s got passion,” added Kadri. “He’s fun to play with. You’ve got to guide him through some things, but he’s got great talent and I think he’s using it pretty well so far.”
Hyman rewarded for consistent hard work.
Winger Zach Hyman was also appearing in his fifth career NHL game, and the 23-year-old Toronto native earned his first NHL goal and point Monday by scoring with 19 seconds left in the second period to put the Leafs up 3-1.
“It was awesome,” Hyman said of scoring. “I don’t really know what was going through my head. I was just ecstatic. You don’t really know what it’s like until you score your first goal in the NHL, something you dreamed of when you’re a kid, and for your hometown team. Definitely something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Through his formative years at the University of Michigan and with the American League Marlies, Hyman earned a great reputation as a skilled, swift penalty killer and tenacious puck-retriever, and his play is earning him the confidence of the coaching staff.
“I just think Hyman’s a really good player,” Babcock said. “Plays really hard. He’s on the forecheck, he’s physical, he wins battles, he skates right by you…I don’t know how much he’s ever going to score – he scored in college – I don’t know how much he’s going to score in the end, but he’s going to be able to penalty kill and play a regular shift, and play with good players and get them the puck.”
Toronto’s special teams stand out.
It hasn’t been every game where we’ve seen the Leafs’ power play and penalty kill unit functioning well at the same time, but Brad Boyes scored his eighth of the season with the man advantage at the 11:05 mark of the first, and Toronto prevented the Sabres from scoring on any of their four power plays. Buffalo came away with the win in the shootout, but the Buds played strongly in a number of areas, and that includes their special teams, which has to be encouraging.
Blown lead costs the win.
Toronto controlled the play for much of the night and outshot the Sabres 33-27, but again had trouble closing things out and wound up paying the price in the shootout. It was a familiar refrain, but the loss didn’t completely overshadow the many good things the Buds did.
“This was a game we were in total control of,” Babcock said. “I thought we had the puck more, I thought we did more good things, and we still found a way not to get the points we wanted, so that part’s disappointing.”
“We played well for the majority of the game, but we have little lapses and allow them to get back in the game, and can’t seem to recover after,” Kadri added. “But obviously, a shootout loss, you can’t get too low, and when you win them, you can’t get too high. You have to stay on an even keel.”
More firsts for the Leafs – and a highly-touted Sabre.
Veteran forward Ben Smith – acquired in the trade that sent goalie James Reimer to San Jose – recorded his first point as a Leaf with an assist on Hyman’s goal, and veteran winger Milan Michalek (who was part of the trade that made Dion Phaneuf an Ottawa Senator) played in his first game with Toronto, logging 12:43 of ice time.
In addition, Sabres phenom Jack Eichel scored 7:28 into the third period to tie the game and record his first career NHL goal at the ACC. It was Eichel’s 20th goal of the season for Buffalo, and the 19-year-old centre no doubt will help build the Leafs/Sabres divisional rivalry to new heights.