February 11 – Day 115 – Youth explosion on the QEW

You know what one of the best things about the weekend is? All the hockey. No day is that more apparent than Saturdays, when almost the entire league is in action.

That remains true today, as we have 13 games taking place, starting with a trio (the New York Islanders at Ottawa [RDS], Vancouver at Boston [SN] and San Jose at Philadelphia [NHLN]) of 1 p.m. matinees, followed an hour later by two more (Carolina at Dallas and Florida at Nashville) and Detroit at Columbus at 5 p.m.  The usual 7 p.m. starting time marks the puck drop of four contests (Tampa Bay at Winnipeg [SN], Buffalo at Toronto [CBC], St. Louis at Montréal [CITY/NHLN/TVAS] and Colorado at the New York Rangers), with Anaheim at Washington getting underway half an hour later. Pittsburgh at Arizona gets green-lit at 8 p.m., followed by Chicago at Edmonton (CBC/SN) – this evening’s nightcap – at 10 p.m. All times eastern.

Short list:

  • Vancouver at Boston: Welcome bask to Boston Loui Eriksson!
  • Buffalo at Toronto: The third installment of the Battle of the QEW rages on tonight!

And that list doesn’t even include the five fantastic games between teams currently in the playoff hunt.

As good as Eriksson might have been in Boston, it’s been awhile since we’ve featured Buffalo in the DtFR Game of the Day series, so we’re off to Toronto!
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When two teams are separated by only 100 miles, there’s a strong chance of a rivalry. Mix in a handful of the shining young forwards in the league, and it’s almost a certainty.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t always yield success. Just ask the visiting 22-22-10 Sabres who currently sit in seventh place in the Atlantic Division and 15th in the Eastern Conference. Even with Jack Eichel at it’s disposal, Buffalo has still managed only 132 goals this season, the seventh-fewest in the league.

Eichel has certainly been fantastic in his sophomore season, improving on his .69 points-per-game in his rookie campaign by a tenth of a point. Unfortunately, his high ankle sprain suffered at practice a day before the Sabres began this season effectively spoiled the rhythm from a solid 13-goal, 4-2-1 preseason. He missed two months with the injury, which is why most of the offensive numbers belong to newcomer Kyle Okposo. The right wing has 35 points so far this season, including 16 goals – both team-highs.

For those that want to breakdown the Sabres‘ offense further to find the biggest problems, I have two words of advice:

  1. Consult @kephartc.
  2. Don’t look at the power play.

Even if the overall offense has struggled, the power play has been, as the kids say, straight fire. Buffalo converts 23.3% of opponents’ penalties into goals, the second-best rate in the league. Both Okposo and Rasmus Ristolainen can share equal responsibility for that dominating performance, as they both have 18 power play points, but it’s been Matt Moulson (usually a fourth-liner, but on the second power play line) with the most goals on the man-advantage, with nine on his season résumé.

Unfortunately, prosperity on one special team does not translate to the other. Stopping only 73.8% of opposing power plays, the Sabres‘ penalty kill ties for dead last in the NHL. Even though Josh Gorges ties for 25th in the league with 23 shorthanded shot blocks, both his goaltenders, Robin Lehner and Anders Nilsson, are not very good against the power play. They both have only a .867 save percentage in that situation, tying for 27th in the league.

Playing host this evening are the 25-17-11 Maple Leafs, the third-best team in the Atlantic Division thanks in large part to their intimidating offense. Toronto has buried 163 goals so far this season, tied for the sixth-most in the league.

It seems like every time the Leafs are featured, someone else has the points and goals lead. And it’s always a rookie.

Tonight’s star rookie is Mitch Marner, who has an impressive 46 points to his credit, two more than second-place Auston Matthews – another rookie. That being said, there’s one thing Matthews has that Marner doesn’t: a knack for scoring. The center has buried 25 goals this season, the most among NHL rookies and tied for eighth-most in the league overall.

Just like Buffalo, the Leafs play a beyond-impressive power play. Led by William Nylander‘s (yup, another rookie) 16 power play points, Toronto has converted 23.1% of opposing penalties into goals, the third-best rate in the league. Even though he’s not a first-year player, scoring most of those tallies has been Nazem Kadri, as he has a solid 10 to his credit.

The Sabres‘ power play will be put to the test this evening, as the Leafs are one of the best teams in the two minutes following a penalty. Led by Roman Polak‘s 28 shorthanded blocks, Toronto stops 83.7% of opposing power plays – the eighth-best rate in the league.

Twice these rivals have met this season, and twice have the Maple Leafs emerged victorious. The last time they met was January 17 in Toronto, where they played to a 4-3 result in front of 19,122 fans.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Buffalo‘s Lehner (.923 save percentage [tied for seventh-best in the NHL]) & Toronto‘s Frederik Andersen (three shutouts [tied for seventh-most in the league) and Matthews (25 goals [tied for eighth-most in the NHL]).

It’s never a good sign for the visitors when Vegas puts a negative number next to the host’s name. That’s the situation this evening, as the Maple Leafs are marked with a -158. Given the Sabres‘ abysmal penalty kill, I don’t see this one going any other way. The Leafs should win.

Hockey Birthday:

  • Eddie Shack (1937-) – This left wing played 17 seasons in the NHL, most of which in Toronto which is only 400 kilometers from his hometown of Sudbury. He was a member of four Stanley Cup-winning Leafs teams, including their most recent in 1967.
  • Jaroslav Spacek (1974-) – Florida selected this defenseman in the fifth round of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, but he played most of his games in a Sabres sweater. A 13-year NHL veteran, his best season was in 2005-’06 when he notched a combined 43 points and a +11 between Chicago and Edmonton.
  • Maxime Talbot (1984-) – Selected in the eighth-round of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft by Pittsburgh, this center spent 11 seasons in the league. His crowning achievement was being a member of the Penguins‘ 2009 Stanley Cup-winning team.
  • Mike Richards (1985-) – This center was drafted 24th-overall by Philadelphia in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, but he won both of his Stanley Cups as a member of the Kings.

Thanks to a three-goal third period, the Blackhawks were able to knock off the Jets 5-2 in Winnipeg in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Who else to score the lone goal of the first period than First Star of the Game Patrick Kane (Third Star Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov)? He buried his snap shot with 4:23 remaining in the opening frame to give the Hawks a 1-0 lead.

Only 1:43 after returning to the ice from intermission, Bryan Little (Toby Enstrom and Patrik Laine) pulled the Jets back even with a wrister, but Anisimov (Panarin and Kane) made sure that Chicago entered the second intermission with a lead, scoring a wrister of his own with 7:44 remaining in the frame.

Duncan Keith (Nick Schmaltz) takes credit for the game-winning tally with 2:59 remaining in regulation, but the real stick to break the camel’s back was Marian Hossa‘s (Niklas Hjalmarsson) shorthanded empty netter 68 seconds later. Adam Lowry (Joel Armia and Jacob Trouba) took advantage of the man-advantage with 71 seconds remaining in regulation to pull Winnipeg back within two goals, but Panarin (Keith) set the final 5-3 score with a wrister on an empty net.

Corey Crawford earns the victory after saving 28-of-30 shots faced (93.3%), leaving the loss to Second Star Connor Hellebuyck, who saved 31-of-34 (91.2%).

The last two road teams to win a game in the DtFR Game of the Day? Chicago and Chicago. Last night’s win pulls the visitors in the series within eight points of the 61-38-18 hosts.

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