Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen looked fresher Saturday. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu

Maple Leafs beat Sabres as Toronto fans take over Buffalo: ‘We have to earn it’

BUFFALO – There’s a lot to unpack from Saturday’s 3-0 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, a defeat that likely extinguishes the Sabres’ faint hopes of making a miracle run to the playoffs.

Mathematically, yes, the Sabres are alive. But forget about it. There are five points to make up and five teams to climb and just seven games left.

Saturday’s defeat illustrates how far the Sabres have fallen during a record-setting playoff drought about to hit 13 seasons and the work they must do to win back a disgruntled fan base.

Toronto fans always invade KeyBank Center. Over the years, that number has crept up to the point they often comprise the majority.

But on Saturday, based on the eyes and ears test – Leafs apparel and noise – Toronto supporters probably comprised a record number, perhaps 90 percent of the capacity crowd of 19,070.

The Sabres, who are 18-19-1 at home this season, played the role of visitor in their own building.

The crowd erupted when Leafs star Auston Matthews scored his 60th goal to cement the victory, chanting “MVP” and giving his milestone a standing ovation. When Leafs goalie Ilya Samsonov made some dazzling saves, they chanted “Sammy.”

When the Sabres start regularly winning again, then perhaps their fans will make up the majority. Sabres-Leafs games in Buffalo used to be a special rivalry night, with each side trying to outdo the each other.

Right now, Buffalo fans are happy to sell their tickets for a nice profit.

“We all know in this room that we have to earn it,” Sabres center Dylan Cozens said. “We understand it’s been a long time and we have to get that support back by being a good team and winning games.

“When it comes down to it, we can work as hard as we want but at the end of the day, to get that support back we’ve got to win games. It’s going to be a big summer for all of us. We’ve got a lot to prove.”

Sabres winger Alex Tuch echoed Cozens, saying, “We have to try to get the fans back in here to support us.

“It’s been tough. It has,” he said. “For everybody involved – both sides. But we’re going to continue to work and we’re gonna turn it around.”

Cozens knows the Leafs have special support.

“It’s something,” he said. “Hopefully we can get that kind of support one day when we’re on the road. We’re going to be a great team like that and we’re going to build something special here.”

The Sabres seemed to possess the makings of a special team last season, when they fell one win short ending their postseason drought. While they’ve improved in some areas this year – namely defense and goaltending – they’ve regressed in others, most notably the power play.

On Saturday, the Sabres’ power play, which began the night ranked 28th overall, went scoreless in six tries, generating seven shots.

“Chalk it up to not bearing down on the grade-A’s, which happens, makes you lose your confidence and then you’re overstressing and overanalyzing,” Tuch said. “Instead of playing free and looking for each other, you’re trying to force things and trying to force opportunities and looks when they’re just feeling good.”

The Sabres, however, created some strong chances but missed the net.

“We were a little bit tight,” Sabres coach Don Granato said.

In the Leafs’ last visit Dec. 21, a 9-3 Sabres win, Samsonov endured an awful night, allowing five goals on 19 shots in 28 minutes.

Ten days later, the Leafs waived the Russian and assigned him the AHL, where he worked closely with Toronto Marlies goalie coach Hannu Toivonen but did not play any games.

On Saturday, he recorded a 34-save shutout, making a few highlight-reel stops.

Samsonov, 27, is 15-4-1 since the Leafs recalled him.

Sabres goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen made 19 saves in his first start since getting yanked from Wednesday’s 6-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators after allowing four goals in the opening 8:49.

“He looked better, absolutely,” Granato said. “No question, obviously, he made a couple spectacular saves, both goalies did. But, yes, he looked definitely fresh compared to his last couple starts.”

Rookie goalie Devon Levi played in Friday’s 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils.

Notes: After Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin’s hit on TJ Brodie in the corner ignited a melee in the final minute, every skater on the ice received a 10-minute misconduct. … Matthews is the ninth player in NHL history to register at least two seasons of 60 or more goals and the first since Pavel Bure in 1992-93 and 1993-94. Matthews also hit the prestigious number in 2021-22. … Leafs captain John Tavares opened the scoring in his 1,100th NHL game. Nick Robertson made it 2-0 in the second period. … Sabres forward prospect Anton Wahlberg played his first game for the Rochester Americans in Saturday afternoon’s 4-3 overtime road win against the Cleveland Monsters. Wahlberg, 18, recently joined the AHL team after spending all season playing in the Swedish Hockey League.

2 thoughts on “Maple Leafs beat Sabres as Toronto fans take over Buffalo: ‘We have to earn it’”

  1. I’d like to know what the plan going forward is with this team. Last year it was offense. This year it was defense. I hope next year is earning your spot on the team no matter how much you are making and where you stand now. Every player should be looking over their shoulder. Either you produce or bring in or bring up someone else. There is too much complacency on this team. The same goes with the coaches. No more rope.

  2. I really like Granato. I think he is great for young players and their development. However, I question the assistant coaches. Other than Ellis, I never heard of the others. The power play is terrible. Assistant coaches need to change. Maybe Lindy will be a senior consultant. Above all, they need a captain that is going to hold guys accountable. Not sure who is best for that, but it is needed desperately. Maybe Dahlin, Cousins, Tuch?

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