After leaving St. Paul with only one point to show for their efforts in a shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild, the Toronto Maple Leafs will look to focus next on their home-and-home series against cross-border rival, the Buffalo Sabres. Although Buffalo has given Toronto a decent amount of trouble over the past few years, don’t expect that to continue as the Leafs need to prove that they are a legitimate threat in the NHL‘s Eastern Conference Atlantic Division.
The Leafs couldn’t ask for anything more than to play the lowly Sabres twice in a row. Given the Sabres’ absolute upside down start to the season, the Leafs should feel confident that they can take a relatively easy four points away from them. On any given night no team should take their opponent lightly, but when you are an 11-6-1 Maple Leafs team that is still trying to prove that they belong with the likes of the Boston Bruins and the Detroit Red Wings in the division standings you have to take advantage of playing a weekend series against a 4-15-1 Sabres team. If they don’t capitalize on this opportunity to earn four points in two days one has to wonder whether they will be able to hang with the big guns in the East.
In order for the Leafs to regain their stride some changes need to happen. They need to out-shoot an opponent or at least hold their opponent to a below average number of shots on net. The Leafs were once again out-shot when they took on the Wild on Wednesday night. At some point, they need to learn how to give their goalies a break by becoming more defensively sound. Offense hasn’t necessarily been the problem for the Leafs, but their defense and back checking attempts after quick turnovers have been.
As far as coaching, if the Buds find themselves in a close game and back to the dreaded shootout, they shouldn’t put Phil Kessel out there. Believe it or not, the shootout seems to bring nothing but stress to the sharp shooting Kessel as he is only 5-for-27 in shootout action since joining the Leafs. If Randy Carlyle is going to put Kessel in the box to serve a third period, five-minute major penalty for Nazim Kadri, he shouldn’t expect Kessel to come up big in a high pressure situation like the shootout. By taking away a player’s confidence at one aspect of the game you can’t expect him to step up in another situation where he clearly isn’t comfortable.
If the Leafs can clean up a few parts of their game along with some of their decisions coming from the bench, expect the Sabres to play like punching bags against a Leafs team that still needs to figure out whether they are a contender or just another Eastern Conference pretender.
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