TORONTO - Facing a Toronto Maple Leafs team that was not only coming off of two bad preseason losses, but also dressing many of its stars for their home crowd, the Buffalo Sabres expected their opponent to come out with guns blazing at Ricoh Coliseum on Friday night.
Even with that foresight, the Sabres couldn't keep up. A lopsided first-period in favor of Toronto gave way to penalty trouble for Buffalo over the final 40 minutes, and a pair of late empty-net goals sealed a 3-0 win for the Maple Leafs.
"You're looking at a team, and I know it's early in preseason, but they lost two games, scored four goals and they gave up 11 against," Sabres coach Phil Housley said. "You know they were going to come out with some hair on their back, and we weren't ready for that."
Video: BUF Recap: Offense falls short in 3-0 loss to Leafs
Toronto's strength is its speed, and the young Maple Leafs put that on full display while outshooting the Sabres 14-5 in the first period. It took until eight minutes into the contest for Buffalo to record its first shot.
The Sabres finally got a strong shift from the line of Ryan O'Reilly, Benoit Pouliot and Seth Griffith in the final minute of the first, but an onslaught of penalties from that point on prevented them from establishing any sort of consistency.
In total, Toronto had nine power plays. They only scored on one - Morgan Rielly went end-to-end with the puck and beat Linus Ullmark from the left side in the second period - but that was all they needed. Toronto goalies Curtis McElhinney and Garret Sparks combined for an 18-save shutout.
"You could tell off the bat that we didn't have our legs," O'Reilly said. "That's tough, being on the other side of the puck. They were causing turnovers and forcing us to have to stick check, have to get back so it led to the penalties. Once it kind of got going with that, it was tough for us to gain any momentum back."
It was because of Ullmark that the Sabres were in the game at all. He made 32 saves and was the steady presence the Sabres needed on a night that saw the Maple Leafs spend ample time in their zone.
"I felt good," Ullmark said. "First real game of the season, it felt great to be out there. It was a lot of fun, especially against Toronto of all teams. Sadly we couldn't make the most of it and go back home for a win."
Whereas Toronto iced a star-studded lineup, the Buffalo lineup consisted of mostly players competing for roles on the NHL roster. For context, of the Sabres' six leading scorers from last season, only one (O'Reilly) played. The Leafs dressed three of their five leading scorers in Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri and William Nylander, as well their top defenseman in Rielly.
While the team performance was disappointing, Housley said the opportunity to see his players under duress against a strong Maple Leafs team made for a good evaluation.
"I think it does put a damper on it, but we had a good evaluation tonight," he said. "That was a pretty strong lineup. They're strong down the middle, they had a lot of their top scorers out there and some of their D, so it was a good evaluation in that respect.
"Our guys are going to have to learn that it's only going to get harder from here on in."
Rodrigues exits with injury
Evan Rodrigues left the game in the latter half of the second period after taking a hard check from Andreas Borgman along the boards. Housley did not have an update on his status after the game.
The hit could interrupt what's been a strong camp for Rodrigues, who stood out in the preseason opener on Monday and had impressed Housley with his work ethic. He's looking to solidify his spot on the NHL roster after scoring six points (4+2) in 30 games as a rookie last season.
Ullmark uses his head
While he made several saves worthy of the highlight reel, two of Ullmark's most memorable saves came within a one-minute stretch in the third period. Ullmark deflected a shot out over the glass with his mask, then used his head to make another stop shortly after.
Ullmark said earlier in the week that making saves with his mask was something he'd been actively working on.
"I just kind of felt like there was no real reason to get my hands in there because it can bounce off it, so I just tried to get my head to it and head-butt it over the glass," he said.
Look for the rematch
The Sabres and Maple Leafs will meet again at KeyBank Center on Saturday night.Tickets are available by clicking here, or you can catch the game live on MSG-B and WGR 550. The puck drops at 7 p.m.