Toronto Maple Leafs 6 at Buffalo Sabres 3 – 2023-02-21 recap

Was it really a road game for the Leafs?

After a few days of hyping up the damage that the Tavares-O’Reilly-Marner line could do off the cycle, they came out and destroyed the Buffalo Sabres with speed Tuesday night.

At the start of the game, the Sabres failed to exit the zone cleanly on a few occasions, and the Leafs made them pay.

First, Conor Timmins closed in on Casey Mittelstadt at the offensive blueline following an icing and defensive zone faceoff win by the Sabres. Mittelstadt was unable to complete a pass into the neutral zone for Jack Quinn as a result (before inexplicably going to change). TJ Brodie read the play, cut across the ice, and, before the Sabres had their new troops on the ice, tipped a pass forward for John Tavares, who gained the offensive blueline and sent it forward for Mitch Marner. The Sabres coming onto the ice weren’t prepared to cover Ryan O’Reilly, who was unguarded skating in a straight line towards the net and Tyson Jost, the only Sabres forward on the ice at the time of the exit, recognized the danger and got there too late.

1-0 Leafs, off a transition play.

Next, Tage Thompson, receiving a neutral zone pass in space but with no speed, was forced to tip the puck in deep past Mark Giordano, Brodie again read there was no danger on his side of the ice and, as he frequently does, went into the opposite corner to retrieve the puck and start the breakout. He made a quick pass against the grain with two forecheckers (Thompson and Alex Tuch) closing in behind the net. Giordano quickly sent the puck forward to the neutral zone to Tavares, who was being blanketed by Rasmus Dahlin. But Tavares protected the puck and moved it into the middle for O’Reilly (Tavares play was really the key one on the sequence), and O’Reilly worked in with Marner on a 2-on-1 against Jokiharju. Jokiharju did the correct thing by forcing Marner to make a decision and a play quickly, closing in on Marner at the line, but Marner got the pass through to O’Reilly.

2-0 Leafs, off a rush play.

Finally, in his own end following a shoot-in, Tuch tried to send a blind pass cross-ice, with no Sabres in the area. Jokiharju caught up to it near the blueline, but fanned on his pass forward, forcing Jeff Skinner to skate back towards his own end to receive it. Tavares beat him to the puck, loosened it, and Marner grabbed it. Marner took advantage of Jokiharju changing and dished a backhand pass to Tavares as Jacob Bryson came on the ice. Again, nobody was covering O’Reilly into the zone, who went straight to the net. Tavares, knowing how to play with Marner, passed off to Marner and also went to the net. Marner took a quick curl around the right wing half wall, and opted to put the puck into a crowd (Morgan Rielly, cutting in on the left wing, was also wide open for a shot) and Tavares won another puck battle, this time getting his own shot away from the inner slot.

3-0 Leafs, off another transition play.

When I entered the NHL job, I was obsessed with the concept of puck possession. I believed that the best way to create offence was to have the puck a lot, to enter and exit with control, to play slowly and methodically, and you could wear opponents down. The more I watched the sport, the more I came around to the idea of playing with pure speed and making your opponents pay for mistakes. When the opponent makes a mistake, such as a turnover (anywhere on the ice) or a botched assignment, there’s a split second window where a good player can punish even a good team for it. Good teams make mistakes as well, which is why good teams play to support the puck, rather than avoid mistakes altogether.

The Leafs offence is a little misunderstood. They don’t have a possession-based attack, nor are they especially quick. But that doesn’t mean they can’t play like that when necessary. I don’t think of Tavares or O’Reilly as being burners, and a potential flaw of this line with Marner is that those two may lag behind him in the offensive zone. But protecting the puck, making a good pass when necessary, and knowing the assignment in the offensive zone can correct for those flaws. I think that it’s more likely than not that this “Passion Line”, if they stay together, will dominate off the cycle and play heavy below the hash marks in the attacking zone. That doesn’t mean they don’t have the ability to score multiple goals in a game the way they did against Buffalo: take advantage of mistakes and quickly punish them. You don’t have speed going into the offensive zone? We’re going to go 200-feet in 7 seconds and score. You make a line change when we have the puck in the neutral zone? We’re going to send a guy to the net and hope that we can get him the puck.

The Sabres made this game interesting in the end. Part of that is that Buffalo is a pretty good team when the game state tilts in their favour (coming into the game, they were 7th in scoring chances for percentage when trailing, but 16th when tied), part that the Leafs were a little disorganized and at the end of a pretty chaotic travel schedule.

Some pretty good returns on this early forward group for Toronto. Not a lot of holes up front. We still need to see how they handle stronger teams and they’ll have some good tests upcoming with Minnesota, Seattle, and Edmonton coming up shortly.

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