Leafs 4 v. Sabres 1: Are You Phoenix in Disguise?
Flipping a coin might give you a better idea of what Leafs team will show up on any given night. On Thursday night the Leafs came out flat and were never in the game against Florida. On Saturday night the Leafs gave one of their best performances this season and handed the top team in the league their first regulation loss. For long stretches of the game the Leafs made Buffalo look ordinary. Despite pre-game reports that newly fanatical Sabres supporters would cram the Alphabet Arena there was a massive contingent of blue and white clad Leaf fans. The traveling contingent reveled in the win and did so loudly. Chants of ‘Miller’ and ‘Overrated’ filled the air with a rousing rendition of the Steam classic “Goodbye”. It's too bad they don't know the classic football song from the post title. It's always a good way to rile up a team.
This great game by the Leafs followed the same pattern as their other strong performances. The Leafs neutralized the high flying Sabres offence through the first 40 minutes with a determined forecheck that kept the defencemen from making the crucial first pass. Whenever the opportunity presented itself the Leafs were taking the body. Even Wellwood was hitting and he provided one of the highlights of the night with his physical play. He saw Spacek had him lined up in the neutral zone and he ducked down and flipped him over his hip.
The Leafs defensive coverage was the best it has been in a number of games. What few shots Raycroft faced in the first two periods were unscreened and any rebounds were cleared. It seemed to be a bad omen when Hecht opened the scoring by beating Bell to the outside and sliding the puck under Raycroft who was ready to pokecheck in anticipation of Hecht cutting in front of the net. To his credit, Raycroft shut the door and made a number of great saves in the third when the team ran into penalty trouble.
In such a complete performance it is tough to highlight any standouts. It’s tough but not impossible. Mats Sundin was, as usual, a standout with two goals, an assist, and some good work killing penalties. Matt Stajan continued to be a revelation this season and his hard work was rewarded with an assist on O’Neill’s fifth of the season. Ian White made a spectacular pass to set-up Mats’ second of the game and played one of his best games of the season in his own end. Bates Battaglia played like a guy that wants more ice-time.
The only lowlight of the game was the amount of diving by the Sabres. Last year when Hitchcock complained during the playoffs I thought it was just sour grapes. However, at times last night, especially the third period, I thought that I was watching a Serie A game the way blue-clad players were flying through the air. The worst one was Chicken Soup Campbell’s swan dive when he felt Sundin’s stick near him. About 15 seconds later on the powerplay the reigning flop-king Derek Roy felt Gill’s stick by his skates and proceeded to jump in the air and spin twice. Those were the two most obvious ones but enough to make Francesco Totti proud. Sabres fans will probably mention that Tucker stayed down a bit longer than necessary when Adam Mair drilled him from behind but in the words of Arsene Wenger, I didn’t see it. Maybe they’ll point to Ponikarovsky falling a bit easily when Roy grabbed his shoulder. I would say that Poni was knocked off one skate and pushed off with his last skate to get more strength on his dump-in. Whether you believe that homer explanation I think everyone could agree that watching this generation’s Bill Barber calling Poni a diver was a perfect illustration of irony.
The Leafs host the struggling Flyers on Monday. Let's hope that they do not play down to the competition's level. A similar performance will see the Flyers dispatched with ease and that will be a boon to the team's confidence before three straight divisional games against the Bruins (twice) and the Habs.
Maple Leaf Goals
The Leafs forecheck causes a turnover behind the net. Ponikarovsky dished it to Wellwood on the right hashmarks who fired a hard pass into Sundin at the lip of the crease. He redirected it hard through Miller’s pads to tie the game.
On a 5-on-3 powerplay the Leafs moved the puck around to Mats Sundin who faked a shot and slapped a pass under Wellwood to Tucker who tapped in from his office. It was great to see everyone’s (outside of Toronto) most hated player pick up the game winning goal.
More pressure on the Sabres defence resulted in another goal. Steen poked the puck behind the net to Stajan who found Jeff O’Neill in the slot for a one-timer past Miller on the blocker side. O’Neill continues to get into good shooting spots and Stajan keeps finding him.
45 seconds after the third goal the Leafs pounce on a turnover at the blueline. Mats led a two-on-one and dropped a pass to Ian White who had jumped into the play. White faked a shot to bring the defender to his knees and then slid a perfect pass to Sundin who roofed a shot over Miller’s shoulder.
The Final Word
Sabres fans are used to seeing impressive displays of high-speed, hard-battling, super-skilled hockey. Usually, however, it's delivered by the home team, not the visitors; and, certainly, not the Maple Leafs. But in a table-turner, and one of Toronto's most complete efforts of the season, the Leafs beat the Sabres at their own game last night with a dominant 4-1 victory.
Paul Hunter, Toronto Star, who can count the Leafs fans among those that were surprised by the game.
The Maple Leafs obliterated them, 4-1, in front of a sellout crowd that was more locally partisan than it used to be yet still contained a vociferous enemy contingent daring enough to serenade the home team with chants of "o-ver-rated."
Tim Graham, Buffalo News, who probably did not enjoy the chanting as much as I did.
A quadruple indignity: 1) Losing to the leafs, 2) At home, with 3) Tucker getting the Game Winner while 4) Carolina coming back to win. Where’s my whiskey bottle?
Tom L, Sabre Rattling, summing up the feelings of Sabres fans everywhere.