Auston Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs can say they were the better team for most of the game.
But Jack Eichel and the Buffalo Sabres had the edge on the scoreboard and earned the win over the Leafs by a 3-2 margin on Monday night at the Air Canada Centre. It was also a win for Eichel in the running comparison with Matthews, as he scored two goals for the Sabres, including the winner.
"He's a good player, there's no doubt about that," Leafs centre Nazem Kadri, who scored his 30th goal of the season, said of Eichel. "He's got speed to the neutral zone, he's a big body, he's able to protect the puck very well. It seems he doesn't need much space to get his head up and make a play like most talented players. He was good, obviously the difference-maker."
The frustration started early, as the Leafs were all over the Sabres in the first two periods – save for about five minutes surrounding Eichel's goal early in the first that gave the visitors a 1-0 lead – but had a bad case of no puck luck. When they weren't getting the bounces, last-minute starter Chad Johnson was frustrating them with big saves. By the end of the night he had 39 saves in outplaying Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen, who made the best save of the night but was merely mortal otherwise.
Johnson was supposed to be in the press box for the game as prospect goaltender Linus Ullmark was the designated starter with No. 1 man Robin Lehner taking a break to serve as the backup. But Ullmark was injured during the game-day skate and Johnson was handed the start.
"We've got to hit the net," said Leafs head coach Mike Babcock while he perused the game statistics. "We had so many opportunities in the offensive zone. I'm just looking right here, 26 times we missed the net. We've got to keep it out of our net, too.
"I thought we turned it over a bit too much. Too cute, so in the end you go home disappointed."
The Sabres hung on through the Leafs' onslaught through most of the first 40 minutes but finally wobbled in the last two-and-a-half minutes of the second period. The Leafs cashed in to take a 2-1 lead to the third period.
Until those two quick goals turned the game around, at least temporarily, the Leafs were a frustrated group. Perhaps no one was as frustrated as Matthews.
This was the first meeting this season between Matthews and his good friend Eichel, who is also a highly touted emerging star. Eichel missed the first game between the Leafs and Sabres due to a sprained ankle and both players, who became friends while playing for USA Hockey's development program, were asked constantly about this one.
"He's a good dude and we're buddies, but just not tonight," Matthews said after Monday's morning skate.
Matthews was probably feeling much less charitable about his pal several hours later. Just three minutes into the game, after the Leafs spent most of it buzzing around the Sabres net, Eichel poked the puck away from Matthews along the end boards in the Leafs zone to set up his first goal.
The embarrassing gaffe lit a fire under Matthews, as he was all over the ice for the next 40 minutes or so. Despite the effort, the closest Matthews came to scoring during that time was midway through the first period when he ripped a shot off the crossbar.
Eichel had his own frustrations. Early in the second period, he and Jordan Nolan went in on Andersen on a two-on-one. Eichel made a perfect cross-ice pass to Nolan, who was parked on Andersen's left in front of the net but the Leafs goaltender managed to get over in time to throw out his left leg and get a pad on the shot for the save of the night.
Along with Matthews, the Leafs' fourth line of centre Tomas Plekanec and wingers Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen were the most dangerous players on the ice. The fourth line produced several sparkling chances with a combination of speed and anticipation but Johnson frustrated them every time.
"I think playing Buffalo, you always have a rivalry even if it's not the biggest implications [for the playoff race]," Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner said. "That's always how it's been with us."
The Leafs kept pounding away in the second period and their reward came all at once.
Leafs winger Patrick Marleau, playing in his 700th consecutive game, the second-longest in the NHL, was mostly responsible for their first goal. He dumped the puck into the Buffalo zone and then chased it down at the end boards. He flipped the puck to Mitch Marner, who found Nazem Kadri in front for his 30th goal of the season. Kadri has now hit 30 goals for two consecutive seasons.
"It means a lot," Kadri said of the milestone. "I've put in a lot of hard work. It's motivating for me, I'm playing with some great players. I've got to give credit to my teammates as well, they've been supporting me all along."
Seconds after the goal, Sabres forward Jason Pominville took a high-sticking penalty. Matthews finally got on the score sheet as he fired the puck to the net, where Marleau poked in the rebound for his 24th goal of the season on the power play.
The Leafs came on strong in the third period but by the halfway point they gave back the lead with Eichel doing the damage. First, Sabres defenceman Casey Nelson scored on a shot from the point that withstood a coach's challenge from the Leafs' Mike Babcock on the basis of goaltender interference. Then Eichel slid a backhand thought Andersen's legs off a rush, a rather weak goal that put the Sabres ahead 3-2.