Here are five takeaways from the Maple Leafs' 1-0 exhibition shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres Thursday at the Meridian Centre in St. Catharines, Ont.:
Sparks sharp to start. Goalie Garret Sparks got the call in net for the Leafs, and the 23-year-old made a number of excellent stops while turning aside all 11 Sabres shots he faced in the first period and all 17 shots he saw on the night. It was a nice showing from Sparks, who had an uneven NHL stint in 17 games with Toronto last year, but put in solid work at the American Hockey League level with the Marlies. If he can continue reading the play and anticipating correctly, Sparks can be a consistent contributor.
Kaskisuo gave Buds a chance to win, too. After he replaced Sparks at the 7:31 mark of the second period, rookie netminder Kasimir Kaskisuo played just as well, keeping the Sabres from scoring on 21 additional shots as Buffalo outshot Toronto 38-23 through three periods. Kaskisuo continued to frustrate all Sabres shooters in the overtime frame, then stopped Buffalo's first three shootout attempts before veteran winger Matt Moulson beat him to win the game for the visitors. The Buds signed the 22-year-old Finnish goalie to a two-year contract in March, and the former University of Minnesota Duluth standout availed himself well on this night. Like Sparks, his best days are ahead.
No shortage of ill will between divisional rivals. This wasn't a full-strength game for either the Sabres or Leafs - Toronto had head coach Mike Babcock working at Air Canada Centre helming Team Canada at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey Final, and the Buds put together a lineup with a few new faces and many AHL veterans - but it didn't take long for animosity to develop. That's to be expected between the longtime divisional rivals, and with each side employing a young group of up-and-coming talent, the relationship between the franchises is likely to grow even testier in the years to come. And in the spirit of healthy competition, that's exactly what you want. Even in the pre-season.
First Nylander vs. Nylander game doesn't lead to avalanche of offence. This game marked the first NHL contest between brothers Wlliam and Alexander Nylander, but neither forward managed to find the scoresheet. That said, there were flashes of creative brilliance from both the 20-year-old William and the 18-year-old Alexander, each of who were high first-round-selections in their respective entry drafts. And as the rivalry between the teams builds, so too will the competition between siblings.
Both teams were in mid-season defensive form. It's an indication of how well-coached all NHL teams are that, even at this stage of the year, an entire 60-minute game can be played without a single goal being scored. It's true the Sabres spent more time with the puck and in Toronto's zone, but the Leafs survived the onslaught and tested Buffalo goalie Anders Nilsson a number of times as well. There wasn't all that much difference between the two sides in overtime or the shootout, either - Buds blueliner Connor Carrick almost scored the game-winner on his shootout attempt, only to hit the post - and the margins for error seem more slight with every game of every season. But the Sabres and Leafs will have another shot at each other Friday night (and expectations are that rookie centre Auston Matthews will make his pre-season debut for Toronto and sophomore Sabres star Jack Eichel will do the same for Buffalo), and we'll see if that delicate competitive balance holds up.