TORONTO – It's been over four months since the Buffalo Sabres last played the rival Toronto Maple Leafs, which resulted in a 2-1 shootout win at home for Buffalo on Oct. 21. That stands as the only regular-season game of the rivalry for several first-year Sabres, from Jack Eichel to Sam Reinhart to Evander Kane.
Well, beginning Monday night, those new to the team will become a lot more familiar with their neighbors to the north. The Sabres' game against the Maple Leafs on Monday night marks the first of three meetings between the two teams in March, two of which will be played in Toronto.
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said that players like Matt Moulson and Zemgus Girgensons, who've lived the rivalry before this season, told stories of past games before the morning skate to help get the team fueled up for the rivalry.
"We had them in the beginning of the year and I heard an awful lot about the rivalry, the fans, the fans down in Buffalo," Bylsma said. "I'm actually anxious to see how it plays out. They know where they're at in the standings and we know where we're at in the standings."
Toronto's 52 points this season rank last in the NHL, nine behind Buffalo. The Maple Leafs executed accordingly at the Trade Deadline, selling off their veteran players in exchange for future assets as they prepare to have good standing in the 2016 NHL Draft.
The result is a dramatically different lineup from what the Sabres saw when they met in October. Gone are Dion Phaneuf, Roman Polak, James Reimer and Daniel Winnick, among others. Replacing them is a slew of AHL recalls headlined by 19-year-old William Nylander, the No. 8 pick in the 2014 draft.
"We look back to the notes from the game we played them previous this season, there's not a lot of lineup consistency," Bylsma said. "It's tough to even look at the last three games because they've made some moves as well, but we're going to see a young team, an energized team."
Chad Johnson earned with win in the first outing against Toronto and will start in net for the Sabres again on Monday. The goalie echoed his coach's comments, saying that it was an unusual pre-scout given the dramatic changes the Maple Leafs have made.
"Yes it is, I think it's one of those things where you can underestimate them and not look enough into the new players and the new team I guess you could say," Johnson said. "For us, I think it's just sticking to our game plan … I think if you worry too much about that then you start forgetting what you have to do to have success as an individual team."
The game plan for the Sabres has been to wear teams down defensively, and it's shown on the scoreboard. The Sabres haven’t allowed more than three goals since a 4-1 loss to Pittsburgh on Feb. 21, a six-game span.
Due to the trade of Mike Weber and an injury to Cody Franson, the defensive pairs have remained the same throughout those six games: Josh Gorges with Rasmus Ristolainen, Jake McCabe with Zach Bogosian and Carlo Colaiacovo with Mark Pysyk. Colaiacovo suggested that their recent success can be attributed to a growing comfort between the pairs.
"We've definitely made it a focus of our success," he said. "I think we've finally found some composure back there. We've solidified our pairings a little bit more.
"…We've got guys who complement each other really well in our pairings and that's a big part of our success, is when you have guys who are compatible and play well with each other."
Coverage on Monday begins at 7 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B and Bell TV. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550.
9 Evander Kane – 15 Jack Eichel – 23 Sam Reinhart
82 Marcus Foligno – 22 Johan Larsson – 12 Brian Gionta
28 Zemgus Girgensons – 19 Cal O'Reilly – 44 Nicolas Deslauriers
43 Daniel Catenacci – 17 David Legwand – 26 Matt Moulson
4 Josh Gorges – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe – 47 Zach Bogosian
25 Carlo Colaiacovo – 3 Mark Pysyk
31 Chad Johnson
40 Robin Lehner