It’s been a week of preseason now, and we’ve confirmed that Phil Kessel is the best. Has been for a minute, will continue to be. It was just another meeting with the Buffalo Sabres, this time at home, but Kessel and last year’s top line quickly rediscovered their flow and once again carried the team on offense.
This one had some ups and downs, though. Killer offensive line of the future? Disappointing night from some players competing for roster spots? A potential injury to a key player? All that and more, baby, as the Leafs beat the Sabres 3-2 in a shootout.
The game began with plenty of encouraging signs in the first period. Rolling with a first and third line that could be what we see on opening night, the Leafs were aggressive gaining the zone, putting pressure on the Sabres’ defense and opening the occasional seam for looks from the high slot.
While the top unit hadn’t yet found their chemistry – including on the power play, when Cody Franson’s trepidation at the blue line slowed what looked to be a promising entry – the familiarity was palpable. On one entry, Bozak found van Riemsdyk with a deft through pass that he nearly tipped in, creating a secondary opportunity on the rebound. Three power plays (two abbreviated) also bore out several decent chances, affording Andrey Makarov the opportunity to look the part of NHL goaltender for the Sabres.
The second frame got off to an inauspicious start, with a smooth breakout from Buffalo catching the Leafs napping. While Buffalo didn’t have numbers, both Petter Granberg and Jake Gardiner were caught leaning toward the puck-carrier, Cody Hodgson, who found Mikhail Grigorenko for the finish and a 1-0 lead.
Almost immediately after, Korbinian Holzer fumbled an ineffective pass from Bernier, with Bernier bailing himself and his D-man out (GIF courtesy Jeffler):
The pair of miscues seemed to unsettle the Leafs, who had but a single decent chance over the next several minutes. Somehow, Colton Orr dropping the mitts with Mike Weber didn’t magically rally the squad, and instead the Leafs found themselves dealing with consistent pressure and their first penalty kill of the game.
That seemed to wake the Leafs up, as the kill was well-executed and the even-strength play afterward led to a golden opportunity for van Riemsdyk, only for him to pass up an open mouth to make an unnecessarily fancy pass. So, some positive momentohhhh god then this happened off a sloppy Phil Kessel clearing attempt (again, from Jeffler):
No matter. This is Phil Kessel we’re talking about. Bad defensive zone turnover? Well, just give it 59 seconds, and Kessel will streak down the right wing and fire one past the tender from the top of the circle. Reminder: belly fat is not the only measure of a hockey player’s readiness.
Later in the second, we began “seeing the future,” in the words of Paul Romanuk, as the second line I was so looking forward to seeing put their potential on display. While William Nylander, Josh Leivo, and Nazem Kadri couldn’t find the back of the net or even get a clean look off, their perpetual motion and creativity can very clearly bend a defense, leading to a delay of game penalty for the Sabres (the second whistle the trio had drawn this game). They had another near-miss on the ensuing power play, too, and it’s worth warning that if this is ever an actual line for the Leafs, you’ll need to cut back your caffeine consumption.
The top line continued to carry the load in the third, with a mid-circle Kessel attempt leading to a scramble, during which Kessel redirected the puck off of van Riemsdyk’s skate to tie the game with half a frame to play.
And that’s when things got ugly.
Chasing a puck into the defensive end, Cody Franson – having a bit of a tough game to this point – was given a push into the endboards by Torrey Mitchell. No penalty was called on the play, but replays show Mitchell giving a push at the same time Franson appeared to catch an awkward edge with his left skate. Franson was helped off the ice and wasn’t putting his left foot to the floor as he was taken for attention.
But hey, the game goes on, and the Leafs applied pressure late in the tie to put a scare into Buffalo, only for Makarov to again hold his own. And off to overtime they went.
Nylander was again noticeable with the puck on his stick, as he has been all week. He’s not far off from finding the right trigger-point on passes or shot attempts; a bit of experience and adjustment to the pace, and he’ll be right there. Romanuk also went on an oddly-timed rant about not having ties anymore, just so you’re in the loop on that.
Overtime was eventful, with the Leafs holding the zone well between quick Buffalo chances, though they struggled to push shots through the defenders up top. Still, the aggression from the first period was back, and it made for an exciting five minutes, anyway. SHOOTOUT!
- van Riemsdyk scores with a quick deke and snap shot far side.
- Hodgson stopped looking five-hole.
- Nylander stopped on a slow five-hole (I think) attempt. Might have misfired going glove.
- Stewart stopped going glove-side.
- Makarov gets just enough of a Bozak glove attempt to deflect it over the top.
- Grigorenko beats Bernier with an obscene deke.
- Kadri dekes and slips it backhand, five-hole for the eliminator lead.
- Arima beats Bernier low glove-side.
- Holland with a nifty move to go high stick-side for the lead.
- Mitchell stopped with the paddle going five-hole.
It’s probably almost always Kessel, but when it’s not, it’s definitely Bernier. He made 36 saves, including five in overtime with a few additional stops in the shootout. If you need additional evidence at this point that Bernier’s quite good, I’m not sure where else to direct you. It wasn’t necessarily flashy, but the body control and positioning are terrific.
- Obviously, the biggest focus coming from the game will be the status of Franson. That’s the team’s highest-scoring defenseman from a season ago, a key powerplay contributor, and a top-four body. Considering the Leafs’ defensive “depth” refers to several fringe players competing for the seventh spot, this could be bad, and may even require Dion Phaneuf to move back to the right side if Franson’s absence ends up being a lengthy one.
- Fighting in the preseason. Still a thing.
- Tyler Bozak played a really strong game. This is me turning in my blogger card. He had a +8 for overall shot attempts and was just -2 at even strength despite the team’s deficit there, and he took 61 percent of his draws. He was really solid.
- Patrick Kaleta took a puck to the face in the first period and never returned. It was hard to get a look at the damage, but Ted Nolan looked concerned and Kaleta sprinted to the locker room immediately.
- Brandon Kozun is very fast. He looked solid in over three minutes of penalty kill time.
- Peter Holland had a pretty tough go of things, as did the entire third line (he was with David Booth and Matt Frattin) as a unit. If that’s a potential trio on opening night, they’ll need to find a better groove than this. It speaks some to the unfortunate trade-off between mixing lines in camp to find chemistry while also allowing combinations enough time to build said chemistry.
- Your final CORSICOUNT: Leafs 66 (29 shots), Sabres 64 (38 shots) [details here]
onetwo more of these bad boys – Monday and Friday against Detroit. Then they count.