BUFFALO – Captain Kyle Okposo understands the Toronto Maple Leafs, tonight’s opponent, are the Sabres’ biggest rival.
Of course, that’s based on geography, not anything the teams have recently done on the ice. The Atlantic Division foes haven’t made the playoffs in the same season since 2001.
“To really cement a rivalry you’ve got to play a playoff series against somebody,” Okposo said following Monday’s practice at KeyBank Center. “That’s what kind of really ratchets everything up. We have long memories. It’s our closest opponent, but, yeah, rivalry, you need a playoff series.”
The Sabres and Leafs have met in the postseason just once, way back in 1999, when Buffalo’s five-game victory sent them to the Stanley Cup final.
Sure, they’ve played some memorable games over the past several seasons. Think of the Heritage Classic outdoor game nearly a year ago, a fierce contest the Sabres won 5-2.
Still, by then, the Sabres, who last made the postseason in 2011, were well out of the chase.
So tonight’s game – the Leafs’ only visit to Buffalo this season – is unique. For a long time, meetings this late in the year haven’t held much meaning for both clubs. They haven’t been good at the same time.
But fresh off two road victories, the Sabres entered Monday night’s schedule only three points out of the Eastern Conference’s final wild card spot with games in hand on all three teams they trail.
Meanwhile, barring an epic collapse, the Leafs will earn the Atlantic Division’s second or third seed. Right now, they rank second and are barreling toward another first-round matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Late Friday night, the Leafs made a blockbuster three-team trade, landing ex-Sabre Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari from the St. Louis Blues. After six straight first-round playoff exits, the deal sends a strong message they’re going all out.
With so much on the line tonight, there could be an electric atmosphere at the rink. Leafs fans always travel to Buffalo by the thousands, sometimes outnumbering the hometown supporters.
But visits from the Leafs have become less frequent. They did not play the Sabres in 2020-21 when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the NHL to temporarily realign the divisions. Last season, the Leafs only played in Buffalo once, on Nov. 13, 2021. The Sabres’ other home date against them was moved to Hamilton, Ontario, for the Heritage Classic at Tim Hortons Field.
Under the league’s new scheduling format, the Sabres and Leafs play three times this season, as many meetings as they each have with the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team in the Metropolitan Division.
“Maybe something for the league to look at, probably get that figured out schedule-wise,” Okposo said of the low number of games. “It’s always fun when (the Leafs) come to town. They always bring a following, they bring a big number of people, and it’s just a great atmosphere to play them. And, obviously, they’re rolling right now.”
Sabres coach Don Granato said he doesn’t know “what to make” of the infrequent meetings against a team so close.
“But it is fun to play Toronto,” he said. “I think lots of teams will tell you that. A few miles down the road, and it is a big rivalry because of it. You think of our outdoor game last year and going into that building is a fun place to play. So to play them is exciting. I think our guys are very excited to play them.”
The Sabres last faced the Leafs on Nov. 19 in Toronto, losing 5-2. Goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen made his first start this season that night subbing for the injured Eric Comrie.
While it would take about two weeks, Luukkonen, 23, found a groove, and he has remained the Sabres’ No. 1 with three goalies on the roster.
During the Sabres’ three-game road trip last week, Granato utilized each goalie, starting Craig Anderson on Monday, Comrie on Wednesday and Luukkonen on Saturday.
Comrie has often been the odd man out, playing just two of the last 15 games. Still, he has won both of those starts. In Wednesday’s 7-3 win over the Anaheim Ducks, he stopped 19 shots following a 20-day layoff between outings.
“He’s so intense in practices – he’s almost too intense – that we felt he would be ready,” Granato said.
Following a rough performance coming out of the bye week, Granato rested Luukkonen twice before inserting him Saturday. The rookie looked sharp in the Sabres’ 4-2 win over the San Jose Sharks, making 33 saves.
“We have three (goalies), we wanted to get all three in right away,” Granato said. “Now, I think we’re back in a rhythm. Upie was really good the other day, looked much more like himself. So now our decisions will be totally different now that we’re one week past (the) break and we had four games past break now.”
Granato plans to ride the hottest goalie.
“The complete importance of everything is winning,” he said, “and we’ll make our decision based on that moving forward.”
Sabres defenseman Kale Clague limped off the ice late in Monday’s practice and was being examined by doctors following the session, Granato said.
Meanwhile, defensemen Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju had maintenance days.
Update: Clague will miss tonight’s game and be replaced by defenseman Jacob Bryson.
Granato said Clague is “maybe even better than day to day, moment to moment.”