TORONTO – Last time the Buffalo Sabres played in Toronto, on March 7, they came away with a shootout victory but were unhappy with their effort nonetheless. They fell behind early in that game, having to claw their way back against a Toronto roster that had been decimated at the Trade Deadline.
The prevailing sentiment was similar after their game at Air Canada Centre on Saturday night, only this time the Sabres didn’t come back. After giving up a goal in the first period, Toronto scored four unanswered to run away with a 4-1 victory.
"Last game wasn't good either," forward Marcus Foligno said. "We knew our last game against them was crap and it was the same thing tonight. It wasn't there, it wasn't a full 60, it seemed like when we started getting frustrated we played a little bit better but they capitalized on their chances because they had more."
With the Buffalo Sabres playing for the first time this season without their own young star in Jack Eichel, the Maple Leafs took the opportunity to show off some of their own youthful exuberance on Saturday night.
William Nylander, 19, tied the game with 5:05 remaining in the second period and Connor Carrick, 21, scored the winner on a rebound 6:56 into the third. Martin Marincin and Milan Michalek scored 1:12 apart later in the period to extend the lead.
Buffalo's only goal of the game came from Brian Gionta on an assist from Foligno 4:31 into the contest. The Sabres were playing the second of back-to-back games after beating Ottawa at home on Friday.
"We've got to find a way to grind things out when we're not feeling our best," Gionta said. "We didn’t look like a team that had much energy but you get out to an early lead, you’ve got to find ways to play under those circumstances."
Buffalo emerged from the first period leading 1-0 despite trailing 11-3 in shots. The lead held until Rasmus Ristolainen was called for hooking with 7:09 in the second period. Ristolainen was still skating from the box when Toronto won a battle for the puck and got the puck out to Nylander, who had crept alone to the high slot. Nylander's shot went across the net and beat Chad Johnson to his stick side.
Carrick's go-ahead goal came 6:56 into the final period. Jake Gardiner took a shot from in-tight that bounced off of Johnson's pad through the crease and to the left circle, where Carrick was waiting to clean up the rebound with a one-time slap shot.
Marincin and Michalek's goals eliminated any chance of another Sabres comeback. Garret Sparks earned the win in net for Toronto with 20 saves.
"We just didn’t have that jump that we need to compete and be in the game," said Johnson, who made 27 saves and lost for the first time in six starts. "They came out really strong, they're a fast team and we were sort of on our heels most of the game."
Eichel was scratched for the first time in his career after waking up with the flu on Saturday. The rookie had played all 72 games entering the night and had tallied three points (2+1) in his last three contests, but the Sabres weren't willing to attribute their loss to his absence.
"We played them last time in this building and it was similar for 40 minutes with Jack in the lineup," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "Without his speed in the lineup, it's evident, but it's not the [end all] be all. It's not why we got out-competed today."
ONE GOOD FORECHECK
When the Sabres did forecheck in the first period, it led to a goal. It came from usual suspects, with the line of Johan Larsson, Gionta and Foligno all combining to force a turnover close to the net.
Larsson chased the puck out from behind the net and Gionta intercepted a pass from Rinat Valiev in the corner. Gionta fed the puck to Foligno and got it right back in the right circle, where he wound up for his 10th goal of the season.
"That was our one forecheck of the first period," Bylsma said. "The one forecheck we do have, Larsson makes it in physical, Foligno makes the play and we get the goal."
The assist on the play gave Foligno three points (2+1) in his last four games. Foligno has also been on the ice for a Sabres goal in five of their last six contests.
"It was just really quick for them to get out of the zone, we didn’t make it hard enough on them," Foligno said. "The one shift we did it, it ended up in the back of the net."
The Sabres will return to action on Tuesday when they travel to Raleigh for a game against the Carolina Hurricanes. Buffalo is 2-0-0 against Carolina this season after taking a 3-2 decision in overtime at home on March 12.
Coverage on Tuesday begins at 6:30 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B and Bell TV. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550.