Sabres getting ready to face Toronto for the first time this season

Marco Scandella returned to practice on Sunday, while Evan Rodrigues remains out of action

Brayton Wilson
March 04, 2018 - 1:19 pm

Photo: Kevin Hoffman - USA TODAY Sports


Through 65 games this season, the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs have yet to face off against one another on the schedule. On Monday, both teams will square off in their first meeting of the season.

The tale of the tape has been quite opposite for both teams this season, with the Sabres sitting near the bottom of the NHL standings and the Leafs getting set for another playoff run.

While it is strange that the Sabres have not faced the Leafs this season, head coach Phil Housley is looking forward to taking on the team he rivaled for years as a player, now as a coach in the league.

"It's always a great rivalry," Housley said after practice on Sunday. "Just knowing where our opponent is at, they've lost their last three and the coach came out and said they're going to practice [hard] today. We've got to be well aware that they're going to be ready to go, and we've got to rebound from our last game. I think there were areas we needed to improve on going into tomorrow, and we recognized that and showed them. We've got to be ready to play."

The Leafs are coming off of their Stadium Series game with the Washington Capitals on Saturday, in which Toronto lost the game 5-2 in Annapolis, Maryland. After the game, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock was disappointed in his team's effort and canceled Sunday's scheduled day off.

After winning four straight games and nine of their last 10, the Leafs have since gone 0-1-2 and have fallen three points back of the Boston Bruins for second in the Atlantic Division standings. Despite their recent losing ways, Housley knows that this young team can play with the best of them.

"They're a good rush team, and any transitional plays, they're going to try to stretch the zone on us," Housley said. "They like to play that fast game. We have to be ready to make good puck decisions going through the neutral zone, and do like we did against Boston and Tampa. I thought we came out, moved the puck quickly, got in on the forecheck, sustained a lot of offensive time and tried to make them defend as much as possible."

Maybe the last time the rivalry between both teams was anywhere near meaningful was back after the NHL Lockout of 2004, when the Sabres were a team on the rise in the Eastern Conference and the Maple Leafs were fringe contenders, just missing out on the postseason.

Jason Pominville was a part of those rosters during that time, and remembers those meaningful games against the Leafs vividly.

"We won a lot of games," Pominville said. "I do remember [Andrew Peters'] golf swing at one point, that's definitely something that made the guys laugh, but that's a while ago. But there was a lot of battles, a lot of good games. We were able to win a lot, which was nice to be on the good side of things. Hopefully we can do it again."

Pominville has had a great deal of success against the Maple Leafs in his career. In 58 games against Toronto in his time with the Sabres and the Minnesota Wild, Pominville has 19 goals and 31 assists. Knowing the history the Sabres and Leafs have had against one another, Pominville finds it odd that both teams have yet to meet this season.

"It's weird the way the schedule is built," Pominville said. Usually in the past, it feels like we have played them always late a little bit, but to not play them at this point, home or away, is definitely different and something we're not used to. For me, it's been a while, so I'm interested to see if it's still the same way where their fans manage to get tickets in here and be pretty loud. Should be a good atmosphere again."

The Sabres have struggled this season at home, sitting with a league-worst 9-18-4 record on home-ice. However, the Sabres have had a recent string of success against teams in the playoff hunt.

For instance, Buffalo took their season series with the Boston Bruins last Sunday after a 4-1 win at KeyBank Center. The Sabres went 2-1-1 overall this season against Boston, with their only loss coming back in December on home-ice. Buffalo has also had success against the Tampa Bay Lightning this year, going 2-1-0 in three games played. Their final matchup will come on April 6th when the Sabres travel to Florida one last time to close out the season.

Tampa Bay currently sits atop the Atlantic Division standings with 94 points through 66 games, while the Bruins are right behind them with 88 points in 63 games played.

Pominville is hoping that their string of success against some of the best teams in the NHL can continue.

"I feel like it's happened to us a bit where we've played teams that have come off losses and are looking to bounce back," Pominville said. "It's gonna happen, but when you hear things like that, it makes you want to prepare even more and get yourself ready even more to go because you know they're in the hunt for their position. We have to make sure we're ready to play."

As of late, the Sabres and Leafs rivalry hasn't meant as much to the Sabres with their struggles to contend in the Eastern Conference. As for the Leafs, they appear ready to return to the postseason for a second straight season.

Kyle Okposo is currently playing in his second season with the Sabres, and has gotten a taste of what the rivalry is all about. However, he is no new stranger to rivalries. He spent parts of nine seasons playing for the New York Islanders, who have a heated history with their cross-town rivals in the New York Rangers. Okposo has learned though that the Sabres and Leafs rivalry certainly has its moments in comparison to the Islanders and Rangers rivalry.

"It's got that same type of intensity, especially when it's here," Okposo said following practice on Sunday. "The building is electric, and they're definitely fun games to play in. They're coming off a few games that they'd probably like to have back, so we know that we're going to get their best. We're looking forward to it."

It has been a tough season for Okposo, but his game is starting to come around over the past couple of months. However, the Sabres had been out of contention for a playoff spot long before Okposo started to turn things around in his season.

Okposo looks at this young group the Maple Leafs have, and he certainly has been impressed with the way they're built from top to bottom.

"I've watched a lot of hockey, and I've seen them play a lot," Okposo said. "They're young and an exciting team to watch. They play a pretty structured game, so it will be a really good test for us. We played them in the preseason and they were all over us, they waxed us pretty good.

"They have three lines that can really hurt you, every time they're on the ice. Their fourth line is good too, so they have a lot of guys that, on any given night, they can be the catalyst for their team. It's a pretty unique situation for them to be in, and it's going to be a fun test."

The Leafs have been able to step up their play even without the services of Auston Matthews. The 20-year old has been out of action since February 22 with a shoulder injury, but he has also missed other portions of the season due to injury. Matthews has been stellar for the Leafs in his short tenure with the team. In 135 games with Toronto, Matthews has scored 68 goals and has registered 119 points as their future franchise center.

Even without their young center available, Sabres defenseman Marco Scandella knows that Toronto is a well built team that can have success with or without him in the lineup.

"It's a well coached team, a lot of skill," Scandella said on Sunday. "They play the right way, the right system. It's gonna be a tough game. A fast, physical game. I'm just excited to see what they rivalry is like. We're so close to each other that there is a rivalry, and it's going to be an interesting game. It's fun to be a part of."

Scandella has yet to play a single game of the Sabres and Leafs rivalry, but was part of the rivalry that the Wild had with the Chicago Blackhawks for several years. Scandella has heard all the stories of Buffalo's rivalry with their neighbors from the North, and has had Monday's game circled on his calendar for quite some time.

"I've been waiting all year for this game," Scandella said. "I know that there's a huge rivalry with the Leafs, and we haven't played them all year. I've been on the team now for 65 games, and we haven't played them yet. So I've been itching for this one."

After leaving Friday night's game against the Florida Panthers with an injury, Scandella was back on the ice for the Sabres on Sunday skating with Rasmus Ristolainen. The 28-year old defenseman says that he's feeling better, and is hoping that he will be better enough on Monday to face the Leafs in Buffalo.

"I went in pretty awkwardly [into the boards] the last game," Scandella said. "I didn't feel too good, but it's progressing day-to-day. I felt like I could skate today, went out there and felt pretty good. It's just day-to-day from now on."

"He had a pretty good practice," Housley added. "We'll see how he responds after today, and we'll find out more tomorrow."

Here's how the lines and defensive pairings looked:

Girgensons - O'Reilly - Reinhart

Wilson - Larsson - Pominville

Pouliot - Griffith - Baptiste

Nolan - Josefson - Okposo

Scandella - Ristolainen

Antipin - Nelson

Gorges - Falk / Beaulieu

The Sabres did not have Evan Rodrigues back on the ice on Sunday after suffering an upper-body injury on Wednesday in Tampa Bay. However, Rodrigues was seen from the bench watching practice, and he is still considered day-to-day. Housley said that he thinks that Rodrigues will return to the ice at some point this week.

With Rodrigues not practicing and Scandella uncertain for Monday's matchup, the Sabres called up Kyle Criscuolo and Brendan Guhle after practice on Sunday.

Buffalo will return to the ice on Monday for the morning skate before their matchup with the Leafs at 7:30 p.m.

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