TORONTO – The Maple Leafs, like the Buffalo Sabres of a year ago, had to improve this season because 30th place was no longer their target.
After bottoming out on purpose, the Leafs added first overall pick Auston Matthews to their large stable of young talent. They also have Mike Babcock, arguably the NHL’s best coach.
Few, however, expected the upstart Leafs would be this good this soon. Right now, having won eight of the last 10 games, they’ve vaulted up the third in the Atlantic Division, a playoff spot.
“You can hear the excitement across the border with where they’re at,” coach Dan Bylsma said today following the Sabres’ optional skate inside the Air Canada Centre.
Update: Sabres winger Tyler Ennis, who returned from a 30-game absence Monday afternoon, is missing from warm-ups.
Meanwhile, the Sabres, who emerged from their rebuild long before the Leafs, rank last in the division, five points behind their closest rival entering tonight’s game.
Somehow, Matthews, the new face of the Leafs, has been better than many people expected. The Arizona-raised center, 19, already has 21 goals and 37 points in 41 games. The rookie has 15 goals in the last 22 contests.
“We were going through a stretch where we were winning games and people were saying we were going to be another lottery (team),” Matthews said this morning. “Now we’re a playoff team. There’s obviously ups and downs.”
For the first time tonight, Matthews will face his friend, Sabres center Jack Eichel. The two American youngsters share a friendship and a mutual respect.
“He’s a special player,” Matthews said of Eichel.
Eichel said: “I spent a lot of time with him. He’s a good dude. I’m happy to see him having success.”
The two spent time as together a few years ago in the United States Development Program and have also been teammates in international competitions, most recently the World Cup of Hockey.
Eichel, 20, has often been given a forced rivalry with Edmonton star Connor McDavid, the dynamic talent drafted ahead of him in 2015. But given their proximity, Eichel and Matthews tilts could become must-watch hockey five or more times a season for the next 10 years.
That should only strengthen the rivalry between two teams that Eichel said “don’t like each other.”
In other news, the Sabres, who beat Dallas 4-1 on Monday afternoon in Buffalo, will start goalie Robin Lehner again. The rest of the lineup will be announced before the game, Bylsma said.
The Sabres have only played the Leafs once this season, a 2-1 home loss Nov. 3 in which they pumped 43 shots on goal but were stymied by goalie Frederik Andersen, who will start tonight.
Matthews, of course, isn’t a one-man show. Andersen has 18 wins and a .919 save percentage. Five other players have scored at least 10 goals.
Bylsma isn’t shocked the Leafs have improved so quickly.
“It’s not a surprise to see five, six teams in that area all fighting for points and position,” he said.
More notes on tonight’s game:
– Following rough outings in consecutive road losses last week, Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen rebounded with arguably his “best game of the year” Monday, Bylsma said.
“He couldn’t have gotten a higher mark in the game from the coaching staff in how he played,” he said.
Ristolainen played 26 minutes, 13 seconds against the Stars’ talented forward group.
“(He was) big, strong, physical, made hard plays, was very, very good defensively,” Bylsma said.
– Tonight will be Sabres defenseman Cody Franson’s 500th NHL game.
– The home team has won 22 of the last 26 meetings between the teams.
– Lehner is 1-2 with a 3.05 goals-against average and a .893 save percentage in three career games against the Leafs.