Dan Bylsma has never been in the building for a game between the Buffalo Sabres and the Toronto Maple Leafs, but he’s heard stories. Even walking down the street, fans have painted a clear picture of the rivalry between the teams for the new Sabres coach.
“If you win four games, just win these four. That’s what I’ve heard, that’s what I’ve been told by fans going down the street,” Bylsma said.
“I expect it to be a rivalry and I expect it to go from the ice all the way to the top of the balcony.”
The first of Buffalo’s four games against Toronto comes on Wednesday night at First Niagara Center. Pregame coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550. Puck drop is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Chad Johnson will start in net for the Sabres and Johan Larsson will return to the lineup after serving as a healthy scratch on Saturday at Tampa Bay. David Legwand and defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo are both expected to be healthy scratches for Buffalo.
Bylsma’s expectations for Larsson are the same as for the rest of the team.
“I’d like us all to be harder to play against,” Bylsma said. “Johan’s a part of that. But put that down the line, not just Johan.”
“Harder to play against,” Bylsma explained, doesn’t necessarily mean being “more physical.” That’s a part of it, but the Sabres coach wants to see his team bring intensity in other facets of the game – speed down the ice, for example – too.
Right now, the Sabres are in the midst of trying to fit that description. There have been improvements over the course of their first five games, Bylsma said, but he also admitted that he expects the team to be a lot better at it as the season goes on.
With that being said, there should be no better time to set an example for themselves than in their own building against Toronto.
“I think that rivalry games and opponents like the Maple Leafs should bring out the best,” Bylsma said. “It’s going to be electric in our building, there is that added intensity to the game. Yeah, we should be at our best and it should draw out as an example where we should be at all the time.”
The coach won’t be the only Sabre getting his first taste of the rivalry. Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane and Jack Eichel are only a few of the players who will be facing the Maple Leafs for the first time as Sabres tonight.
Eichel, for one, knows about the teams’ recent history.
“I remember Phil Kessel’s baseball swing at John Scott,” he said, citing a brawl between the teams during the preseason in 2013. “I think the atmosphere is going to be great, obviously a lot of emotions. It’s going to be important that we control them and play our game.”
Adding intrigue to the rivalry is the new face behind the bench for Toronto and his relationship with Bylsma. Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock coached Bylsma in Anaheim and since then, they’ve squared off in some memorable matchups.
Bylsma’s Penguins beat Babcock’s Red Wings in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final, but Babcock got the upper-hand as head coach of Team Canada when he beat Bylsma and Team USA in the semifinals at the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Bylsma said on Wednesday that Babcock has inspired some of his own coaching techniques.
“Most definitely, I have talked about Mike and Andy Murray being the two coaches that I took the most from,” he said. “Without a question, there are some things that I’ve adapted that are from my time in Anaheim and Mike as a coach and there are some things from that time that I don’t do. But every once in a while, I do something where I know I did grab it from Mike.”
SCOUTING THE MAPLE LEAFS
Toronto is 1-3-1 on the season and, like the Sabres, the Maple Leafs have had trouble scoring early. Both teams have scored only one first-period goal through five games this season.
The difference for Toronto is how many goals they’ve given up. With six goals against, the Maple Leafs have the worst first-period goal differential in the League. Goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who will start against Buffalo, has twice allowed goals on the first shot of the game.
If they’re to turn it around on Wednesday, Toronto may have to do it without center Tyler Bozak and defenseman Jake Gardiner. Bozak, who scored 49 points for Toronto in each of the last two seasons, was absent from Wednesday’s morning skate and missed Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh with a lower-body injury. Babcock deemed Gardiner’s undisclosed injury “day-to-day.”
23 Sam Reinhart – 90 Ryan O'Reilly – 63 Tyler Ennis
9 Evander Kane – 15 Jack Eichel – 88 Jamie McGinn
26 Matt Moulson – 28 Zemgus Girgensons – 12 Brian Gionta
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 22 Johan Larsson – 82 Marcus Foligno
4 Josh Gorges – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe – 3 Mark Pysyk
6 Mike Weber – 46 Cody Franson
31 Chad Johnson
50 Nathan Lieuwen