Maple Leafs vs. Sabres observations: Auston Matthews secures OT win

It wasn’t thrilling, but the Toronto Maple Leafs found a way to pick up two points against the Buffalo Sabres.

The game got off to a slow start, as both teams failed to generate quality chances in a scoreless first period. The middle frame was a tad more eventful, as Tyler Bertuzzi set up William Nylander two minutes in, and Victor Olofsson fired a perfect shot past Ilya Samsonov to tie it back up a handful of minutes later. However, the game stayed tied 1-1 until overtime, and it’s not like either goaltender was standing on his head. While both coaches will be happy with their team’s defensive play, Scotiabank Arena was pretty lifeless due to the lack of scoring chances.

Thankfully, three-on-three overtime was able to provide some excitement, as Mitch Marner made a gorgeous pass to set up Auston Matthews for the OT winner:

Three stars

1. William Nylander

Nylander had an incredibly quiet first period, as there were essentially no scoring chances for either team during his five-on-five minutes. However, he opened the scoring in the second by picking a corner from the slot:

His line wasn’t generating many shots, but he found a way to be opportunistic, and also impressed on the penalty kill. He looked like the most dangerous scoring threat on either team.

2. Ilya Samsonov

Samsonov was pretty much perfect through two periods, as the only shot that beat him was pretty much perfect:

The Leafs did well to limit high-danger chances, and although Samsonov wasn’t amazing the crowd with highlight-reel saves in regulation, he did everything he needed to do in order to get the game into overtime.

This save on Tage Thompson in the extra frame was his best:

3. Ilya Lyubushkin

I could give the third star to either Matthews or Marner for their role in the overtime winner, but neither player was all that dangerous offensively by their standards. Instead, I’ll give it to Lyubushkin, who is off to a great start in his second stint with the Leafs.

Toronto’s newest addition found a way to elevate his game against his former team. The Sabres generated little to nothing during his five-on-five minutes through 40 minutes, and while he didn’t pick up a point on the play, he played a role in Toronto’s first goal. Lyubushkin also set up Bobby McMann for a quality scoring chance in the second. The Leafs owned 66 percent of the five-on-five expected goals during Lyubushkin’s minutes in his first two games, and that rose to an impressive 96 percent on Wednesday. The Sabres generated next to nothing when he was on the ice, and that’s what he’s here to do.

A defensive battle

The Leafs gave up nine goals the last time they played the Sabres, so perhaps their main focus was on the defensive side of the game. The top line didn’t exactly dominate offensively, but they also gave up little to nothing the other way. The T.J. Brodie and Timothy Liljegren pairing bounced back nicely from a rough outing against Boston, and the Morgan Rielly and Lyubushkin duo continues to play well defensively. Toronto’s penalty kill suddenly looked strong, and even the Bertuzzi, Max Domi and Nylander line did well to limit Buffalo’s chances.

The Sabres didn’t have a shot on goal in the first 14 minutes of the first, and they didn’t have a shot on goal in the third period until the final minute. Even the overtime wasn’t quite as back-and-forth as we usually see it.

Auditions for deadline

There were plenty of trades throughout the NHL on Wednesday. Whether it was Noah Hanifin to Vegas, Adam Henrique to Edmonton, Alex Wennberg to New York, Sean Walker to Colorado or a swap of Casey Mittelstadt and Bowen Byram, contenders around the league are working hard to improve. While one game surely isn’t going to cause Brad Treliving to panic, the Leafs are firmly in evaluation mode.

The Leafs appear to be in the market for another defenceman, but even without Jake McCabe, the team did well to limit Buffalo’s chances. Rielly doesn’t always have stellar defensive results, but Lyubushkin has been able to do a decent Luke Schenn impression through three games. Simon Benoit played with William Lagesson in McCabe’s absence, and the Leafs struggled to generate much offensively during their minutes. With Benoit, Lagesson, Lyubushkin, and Brodie all in the lineup at the same time, Toronto didn’t exactly have a ton of high-end puck movers on the back end.

The John Tavares line played well yet again, and the duo of McMann and Calle Järnkrok is tough to handle on the forecheck. While they scored Toronto’s only goal in regulation, the second line still can’t seem to establish a cycle in the offensive zone, so perhaps that’s the place to add before Friday’s 3 p.m. deadline. If Treliving is torn between adding a forward or a defenceman, perhaps this result will sway him ever so slightly toward adding more secondary scoring rather than another shutdown defender.

Game Score

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Final grade: B

The Sabres have the fourth worst record in the Eastern Conference, and the Leafs are fully expected to outplay them. I figured that Toronto’s 9-3 loss to the Sabres in December might provide the Leafs with some extra motivation, but this game was fairly lifeless to start. While the Leafs deserve some credit for their strong defensive play, especially early on, star players like Matthews and Marner didn’t look like their usual dominant selves until overtime.

It’s tough to complain all that much with a 2-1 victory, especially when it’s backed by a strong defensive effort. However, the Leafs weren’t close to dominant enough to deserve an “A” grade against a weak opponent.

What’s next for the Leafs?

Heading to Boston for a rematch against the Bruins on Thursday at 7 p.m. on TSN.

(Photo of Morgan Rielly, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner: Nick Turchiaro / USA Today)

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