It doesn’t matter if it’s a preseason game, a regular season matchup or a seven-game series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. No Buffalo Sabres-Toronto Maple Leafs game would really be complete without a few highlight-reel goals and some scraps along the way.
A year ago in Toronto, the two teams combined for 239 penalty minutes in a preseason game that featured a line brawl and a goalie fight. No love was lost between the two clubs Friday night at First Niagara Center on Friday.
The game had the intensity of a regular-season tilt as Buffalo approaches the midway point of their preseason schedule. Ten goals, three (almost four) fights and 18,942 fans in attendance will do that.
It was Sabres forward Chris Stewart’s first foray into the rivalry. He was acquired by Buffalo at the trade deadline last season and this was his first game with the Sabres against Toronto.
“Anytime you play a team in your division, it’s definitely going to be a big game whether it’s exhibition or whatever. With them being so close, your emotions run high.”
Stewart was a bright spot for the Sabres in their 6-4 preseason loss. He scored twice and got into a fight, showing off his speed and size. He’s worked hard in the offseason to recover from an ankle injury and broke through in the preseason with a strong performance.
“Chris Stewart was definitely one of those guys where you say, ‘Whoa. That was a good game,’” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said.
Jake McCabe and Cody McCormick also scored for Buffalo. Roman Polak, Tyler Bozak, Dion Phaneuf, Leo Komarov, David Clarkson and Josh Leivo were Toronto’s goal scorers.
The game was Stewart’s second of the preseason and he’s already ready to get out there again for the next one.
“It’s only exhibition, but getting off on the right foot is definitely important,” he said. “You put it behind you, you come back tomorrow and get back to work.”
Stewart’s first goal opened the scoring when he cut through the Maple Leafs defense on an outlet pass from Tyler Myers that was chipped up by Marcus Foligno. With a good burst of speed, Stewart cut in on goal and lifted a backhand over James Reimer’s shoulder.
Toronto responded by scoring three in a row. Polak tied the game 1:25 after Stewart’s goal, connecting on a one-timer from Bozak. Then, Bozak added one of his own with 4:39 remaining in the first, going top shelf on Neuvirth. Forty-three seconds later, Phaneuf made it 3-1 with a wrist shot of his own.
Stewart then made it a one-goal game with 1:57 left when, parked at the top of the crease, he worked to get a shot through Reimer’s legs.
After the Maple Leafs’ Komanov scored 2:05 into the second period, Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe answered right back, finding a shooting lane and scoring his first goal of the preseason to make it 4-3.
The two-goal Toronto lead was regained with 1:42 left in the second and they made it 6-3 before McCormick tallied with 1:26 left.
The game featured three fights and nearly a fourth one when Tyler Myers scuffled with Sam Carrick in the middle of the third period.
Drew Stafford, no stranger to the rivalry mixed it up with Phaneuf with 9:33 to play in the first period at top of the Toronto goal crease.
Stewart then mixed it up with Carrick in the second and McCormick took on David Clarkson a few minutes later. The fights only added the intensity.
“Guys want to win whether it be exhibition or regular season,” McCabe said. “You can see the competiveness out there and it’s fun to be in that atmosphere.”
McCabe was paired with Tyler Myers for much of the game. He ended up logging 23:16 and a plus-2 rating.
Michal Neuvirth started in goal for Buffalo, marking his first game action since his 2013-14 season ended due to injury back in March. He stopped 16 of 22 shots and is looking to move onto his game.
“Obviously a tough game. Not many shots and it seemed like every time they had a chance, it ended up in our net,” he said. “I just couldn’t get in the game to get a big save. A tough start and we all mistakes. I’m looking to improve in the next game.”
James Reimer made 34 saves for Toronto.
BATTLING FOR JOBS
Several players who played on Friday are fighting to win jobs on the Sabres roster. McCabe is one of them as well as forwards Torrey Mitchell and Brian Flynn.
Nolan said that at the start of camp, the coaching staff told the players that the jobs are sitting in front of them and it’s a matter of who is going to work hard enough to earn one.
“Torrey’s one of those guys that took it literally. He wants one of those jobs and McCabe’s another one. He was really good tonight and he looks like he really wants one of those jobs,” Nolan said.
Buffalo’s first-round pick in 2014, Sam Reinhart, played 16:46 with one shot and when 8-for 18 on faceoffs. He’s the only Sabre to play in all three preseason games so far and Nolan said it’s likely he’ll play a few more before all is said and done.
“As far as Reinhart was concerned, I think that was the best game he’s played for us so far. He was a little bit more engaged. You almost feel like he’s getting a little bit more comfortable,” Nolan said. “Special players like that, they don’t just jump in and do things all of a sudden. They analyze a little bit and he’s been analyzing for the last little while now. I think he’s ready to take that next step.”
The Sabres will travel to Toronto for a 7 p.m. preseason game against the Maple Leafs on Sunday. Nolan was unsure after the game on Friday if Reinhart would play in that game or not.