TORONTO - Asked about the significance of his team's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday, Dan Bylsma didn't overcomplicate things. Put simply, if the Sabres win in regulation, they'll be five points back from Toronto. If they lose, they'll be nine points back.
When you put it that way, there's no questioning the importance of this meeting between the two young division rivals.
"They've got a couple points on us here," Sabres forward Jack Eichel said. "We've dropped a couple lately that we probably need so we can't really dwell too much on the past, you've just got to look to your next game and that's tonight for us. It happens to be against a division rival, so it's a big one."
The Sabres and Maple Leafs have met twice this season, and both times Toronto came away with a one-goal victory. Buffalo led 2-0 in the most recent meeting, at Air Canada Centre on Jan. 17, until the Maple Leafs took over with their speed in the second period on their way to a 4-3 win.
The results have been a mixed bag when the Sabres have played teams that rely on their speed like as the Maple Leafs do. The key to slowing them down, according to defenseman Josh Gorges, is being disciplined both defensively and with the puck.
"You can't give them the room to build speed, you can't sit back and let them come at you in waves and attack. You've got to be proactive," Gorges said. "We've got to be the ones pushing the pace, we've got to be on the attack. Physical play. We get the puck in the offensive zone, we've got to keep them down there. If we play a cute transition game where were not executing north and not getting pucks in behind them, they're going to be able to use what makes them good."
The amount of shots the Sabres have allowed as of late has become an area concern, having now given up 35 shots against or more in nine straight games. They'll face a team in the Maple Leafs that ranks third in the NHL with 32.4 shots per game.
Gorges echoed recent comments made by his coach, saying that the high number of shots against is a product of poor puck possession.
"It always stems from turning pucks over, whether that's in the offensive zone, neutral zone or in the D-zone," Gorges said. "You end up spending extended time in your own end when you do that. By the time you get pucks, the best you can do is get to the red line, chip it in, change and your letting that team come at you again and again and again."
Robin Lehner will start in net for the Sabres, who are playing the first game of a back-to-back set. They'll return home to host the Vancouver Canucks at KeyBank Center on Sunday night.
Coverage on Saturday begins at 6:30 p.m. with the Tops Pregame Show on MSG-B, or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops between the Sabres and Maple Leafs at 7 p.m.
Rodrigues joins lineup, Bailey earns promotion
Evan Rodrigues will join the lineup after being recalled from Rochester on Saturday morning and is expected to center a line with Marcus Foligno and Brian Gionta. That's the spot once held by Johan Larsson when he, Foligno and Gionta combined to create a formidable checking line for the Sabres.
Bylsma said recently that Rodrigues plays a more defensive-minded game when he plays at center versus on the wing, and he'll look for you the second-year pro to play a similar role to what Larsson brought to that line prior to going down with an injury in December.
"I'm going to be as sound defensively as I can be and try to shut down the other team," Rodrigues said. "If I keep things simple and not try to be fancy and try not to make too many difficult plays, I'll be alright. I'm just going to keep it simple, have a good breakout pass and get it up on the rush."
While Rodrigues will aim to make an impression in his first NHL game since November, Justin Bailey's play since being recalled earlier this month has earned him a promotion. He'll start the game on the left wing playing alongside Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo.
"He's definitely earned it," Bylsma said. "He's been one of our more effective players with his speed in the time that he's gotten and tonight he's going to have a chance to do it with Ryan and Kyle."
Nicolas Deslauriers is expected to be a scratch at forward, while defenseman Cody Franson will miss the game with a bone bruise he sustained while blocking a shot against Anaheim on Thursday. Bylsma said Franson is expected to miss two to three weeks.
Here's how the full lineup is expect to look in Toronto:
56 Justin Bailey - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
9 Evander Kane - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
82 Marcus Foligno - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 12 Brian Gionta
26 Matt Moulson - 27 Derek Grant - 63 Tyler Ennis
29 Jake McCabe - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
4 Josh Gorges - 77 Dmitry Kulikov
41 Justin Falk - 38 Taylor Fedun
40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson