For John Tavares, who is in his ninth National Hockey League season, a trip to Buffalo is always a special moment, and not because of hockey.
The sturdy centre of the Toronto Maple Leafs has played his fair share of games against the Buffalo Sabres here at KeyBank Center over the years.
But when he walked into the arena ahead of Tuesday night’s game against the rejuvenated Sabres, his mind drifts back to when he used to regularly visit this hardscrabble city in upstate New York to watch his uncle, also named John Tavares, play professional lacrosse.
The lacrosse-playing Tavares forged a legend playing his entire career in the National Lacrosse League for the Buffalo Bandits. And when he retired from the game in 2015, he was the NLL’s all-time leader in games played (306), goals (815) and assists (934).
“Hard to count,” Tavares said when asked how many lacrosse games he saw in this building while growing up to be a hockey star. “A lot of good ones, there was a lot of fun coming to watch my uncle. Great being in the locker room and kind of being out there for pregame warmups too, being one of the ball boys. I really enjoyed it.
“Lacrosse is a big passion of mine and not too many people get to say they’ve got one of the country’s best athletes as an uncle and a family member. So someone I really looked up to and was a great influence on me.”
The Leafs and the Sabres renewed hockey hostilities Tuesday night in a cross U.S.-Canada border rivalry that suddenly has more sizzle now that Buffalo has emerged out of the shinny wilderness.
And the Leafs took the first meeting of the season between the two sides with a tense 4-3 overtime victory, Toronto’s fifth straight win. For the Sabres, it was their fourth straight setback after rattling off 10 wins in a row.
And it was Auston Matthews who potted he winner, using his patented snap shot to blaze the puck past Buffalo goalie Linus Ullmark with just 2.7 seconds left in the five-minute overtime affair.
It was Matthews’s second goal of the game, giving him 15 in 14 games this season and it came at the end of a long shift with him gasping for air.
“We got a break there,” Matthews said afterwards. “I really didn’t know how much time was left, I was kind of pooped at the end of my shift. I decided to stay out there and was just able to pull it in and pick a corner. I was lucky to get it off.”
It was a well-played, fast-skating affair in which the Leafs carried a 2-1 lead into the third where Jack Eichel scored twice to allow the Sabres a 3-2 lead.
On his second goal, Eichel took advantage of a bad giveaway at the Leaf blueline by Nazem Kadri. The puck found its way to Eichel’s stick and he manoeuvred into the slot where his wrist shot eluded Toronto goaltender Frederik Andersen.
But Toronto fought back with Patrick Marleau jamming the puck home behind Buffalo goaltender Linus Ullmark from the side of the Buffalo net at the 14:47 mark to draw the Leafs even.
The close proximity of Buffalo to Toronto has always ensured that there are plenty of Leaf fans making the cross-border trek to support their heroes, and Tuesday’s game was no exception.
In the downtown core in Buffalo during the late afternoon, it was almost impossible to walk a block without encountering a festive group outfitted in Leafs’ garb.
Inside the arena, the Leaf supporters are more than able to hold their own against the home Sabres’ loyalists, although that scale may be tipping now that their hockey team has joined the land of the living.
After seven straight seasons of playoff-less hockey, the Sabres have been the surprise of the NHL this season. Buoyed by a recent 10-game win streak, the Sabres came into Tuesday’s game nipping at the Leafs skate blades, just one point shy of Toronto’s mark in the Atlantic Division.
And the local fans have been lapping it up with renewed vigour, giving a new sense of purpose to a stagnant rivalry.
“The other thing about it, let’s face it, just the proximity of the two teams,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock noted. “It meant that every time we came here before there was always energy in the building, a lot of Leaf fans.
“And now, pretty soon Leaf fans won’t be able to buy tickets here because Buffalo fans will have bought them already.”
The Sabres enjoyed a wide territorial edge in a free-flowing opening period, outshooting Toronto 14-7, but the game remained goalless.
Matthews got Toronto on the scoreboard first at the 8:33 mark of the second period, knocking the puck down at one side of the net before finishing with a nifty wraparound on the other side.
Buffalo would tie it when Sam Reinhart deflected a Nathan Beaulieu shot from the point behind Andersen.
With just 10 seconds left, Toronto’s Jake Gardner deposited a pretty backhand feed from Tavares behind Ullmark to send the Leafs into the third with a 2-1 lead.