There is a lot to like about Buffalo. Clamorous hockey fans that are ever-so-patient. A crowd that sings along to O Canada. Great wings. There is sushi in the press box, for goodness sakes. So blue collar yet so very civil.
On the other hand, there is no other city in the NHL that torments the Maple Leafs as much. By comparison, playing in Boston for them is easy. Consider this, as impossible as it may seem: Toronto’s hockey team has played 110 games in Buffalo and has won 32 times. Yes, really.
It’s not the KeyBank Center. It is Toronto’s frozen pad of futility.
It happened again on Sunday, with the Maple Leafs turning in an ugly performance at the least convenient time. The Sabres, who have fallen out of contention for the playoffs, steamrolled a team which is desperately battling for postseason play.
Jack Eichel did what he always does against Toronto. The Sabres centre broke a 2-2 tie in the third period, which paved the way for a 5-2 victory. It started a series in which the Sabres scored three times in 1 minute 31 seconds to salt the game away.
The goal was the 33rd of the season for Eichel, who is having the best year of his career. He is on a pace for 45 goals and 104 points and has been held without a point in only four of the past 40 games.
As good as he is against everybody, he saves his best for the Maple Leafs.
He has 14 goals and nine assists in 17 games in his career against them.
The loss was the second in three games for Toronto, which plays at Pittsburgh on Tuesday night. Sidney Crosby and co. then come to Scotiabank Arena on Thursday. Those are two potentially treacherous games for a team that got slapped silly by the Sabres.
“We just haven’t been able to put a full 60 minutes together,” Toronto captain John Tavares said. “We need to find the sense urgency we need to have. We have to find a way to raise our game.”
Buffalo did everything but score in the first. They outshot the Maple Leafs 16-5. They outhit them, blocked 11 of their shots and won more faceoffs. It is another game in which an opponent got a jump on them.
“I thought we were fine to start the game,” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “It got away on us in the second half of the first and then all through the second period, for the most part we weren’t really even in the building.”
At one point, the Maple Leafs went more than 10 minutes without delivering a shot. Over 60 minutes they were outshot 36-22.
Frederik Andersen, back in the crease after a day off on Saturday, looked like a Big Dutch boy sticking his finger in a dike, or at least damming up a leaky defence. Several times, a large contingent of followers who had driven across the border chanted his name.
Eventually he sagged against a relentless attack. He finished with 31 saves. All the diving and flopping around he did to stave off the Sabres was to no avail.
Buffalo got on the board first when Colin Miller banked a slap shot off the boards to Johan Larsson, who flipped it in from nine feet away less than two minutes into the second period. Then Conor Sheary tipped one in to put Buffalo up 2-0 with 9:42 remaining.
The Sabres were 22-1 coming into the game when leading after the second period. The Maple Leafs have won only three games all season when trailing after two periods. It wasn’t going to happen this time either.
Yegor Korshkov, who was called up on Saturday from the Marlies of the American Hockey League, got Toronto on the board with 8:31 left in the second period. It is the Russian rookie’s first goal and point and it came in his first NHL game.
Zach Hyman then tied at 2-2 early in the third. It was Hyman’s 18th of the season and fourth in four games.
Toronto looked poised to at least scratch out a point on what had been an abysmal night and then things went sour again.
Andersen allowed three goals on 19 shots in a loss to the Dallas Stars on Thursday when he returned after sitting out four games with a neck injury. He was not as shaky against the Sabres; he simply could not hold back the tide.
It was the fourth and final meeting between the teams and the second game in a back-to-back for the Maple Leafs. Jack Campbell filled in for Andersen and had 25 saves in 4-2 victory over Ottawa on Saturday night. He is 3-0-1 since he was acquired in a trade with Los Angeles.
The Sabres started the year 8-1-1 but went 1-for-37 on the power play in November and are now trailing badly in the playoff race. They are nine points in arrears for the second wildcard position in the Eastern Conference and eight behind Toronto, which sits third in the Atlantic Division.
The Maple Leafs have 22 games remaining with nine against teams ahead of them and six against those who are close behind. A loss to the Sabres doesn’t help. Every point is crucial.
Toronto and Buffalo split the four games between them. Buffalo, predictably, won both of its games at home.
Such a nice place, Buffalo. For everyone but the Maple Leafs.
“It is hard to win hockey games,” Hyman said. “Teams are good. We have to be better, clearly. We’re not proud of that tonight.”