Game Preview #31 - Sabres vs Leafs

 

Heading into this season, the Buffalo Sabres (15-12-3) had become the media darling team that people picked to compete with the big boys in the Eastern Conference. They used the fact that the Sabres had the highest payroll in the entire NHL, as well as their ridiculous off season spending spree as proof that this Sabres team was on the rise. I had a different opinion, and looking back at what I wrote in in July my predictions about the Sabres have  mostly come true. 

The Sabres have struggled this season, they have survived the loss of star goalie Ryan Miller due to the emergence of Jhonas Enroth, but otherwise have struggled mightily both at home (7-9-3) and offensively (ranked 17th in goals per game). A big reason for this has been that the Sabres have not received the production they expected from Drew Stafford (5 goals) and the injured Ville Leino (3 goals) that Lindy Ruff was counting on. The Sabres will be without defenseman Tyler Myers and Leino tonight due to injuries. 

Although the Sabres have gone 3-4-3 in their last ten games they remain only two points behind the Leafs in the Eastern Conference standings. With tonight's match-up being the proverbial 4 point game between division rivals, the Leafs need to take care of business in regulation time. Goalie James Reimer is expected to start in net for Toronto having come off his first win since October 19 Tuesday night. Before the season began I circled this game as one of the five crucial games of the Leafs' season. 

Toronto has not had much success in Buffalo for what seems like ever. Having won the last three games versus Buffalo last season, the boys in blue and white must re-establish that dominance in a building that is a house of horrors for them. With the Sabres having a depleted and slow defense, the Leafs' speed and offensive abilities are going to be key tonight. Having been exposed for the last couple of seasons by the Sabres' power play (mostly due to Tim Connolly), the Leafs' bottom ranked penalty killing unit needs to step up to the plate for them to be successful. 

Former Sabre Connolly will be facing his former team in his former home rink for the first time in eight seasons. Coming off of a big two goal effort against Carolina on Tuesday, look for the veteran centre to have a big night against his former mates. 

Lineups

Leafs

Forwards 

Lupul - Bozak - Kessel 
Kulemin - Grabovski - Frattin
Armstrong - Connolly - MacArthur 
Dupuis - Steckel - Crabb

Defense

Gunnarsson - Phaneuf
Gardiner - Schenn
Liles  - Franson

Goalies

Reimer 
Gustavsson

Sabres

Forwards

Vanek - Szczechura - Pominville 
Ennis - Roy - Stafford
Leino - Adam - Kassian 
Gragnani - Gaustad - McCormick

Defense

Ehroff - Leopold 
Regehr - Sekera 
McNabb - Weber

Goalies

Miller 
Enroth 

Players to Watch

Leafs: Phil Kessel - The Leafs' leading scorer has picked up his play at other times this season when the buds have needed it most. With tonight's game being an important one look for Kessel to lead the charge once again. The Sabres do not have the defense to contain an in form Kessel.

Sabres: Zack Kassian- The 6' 3" 214 lbs winger is an absolute beast of a player to go along with a nice scoring touch. He is the Sabres' version of Milan Lucic and will quickly become a huge thorn in the side of the Sabres' divisional opponents.  With 5 points in 9 games he can finish around the net. 

Game Time: 7:30 at the First Niagra Centre. TV- TSN. Radio - AM640.