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Leafs seek to avenge most lopsided loss of season against Sabres

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs John Tavares - The Canadian Press

The Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres held optional skates at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday.


The Leafs will look to avenge their most lopsided loss of the season when they host the Sabres on Wednesday night. The last time the division rivals met on Dec. 21 in Buffalo, the home team walked away with a 9-3 win.

"We didn't play our best game against these guys, and we didn't play a good game against Boston last game," said defenceman Simon Benoit. "For us it's a bounce-back game."

"They're going to come for us," predicted Sabres defenceman Owen Power. "Teams don't forget those tough losses. They're definitely going to come out and bring their 'A' game. We got to do the same and match it."

The Sabres also beat the Leafs 6-4 in the first meeting of the season back on Nov. 4. 

"It's a big night for us," said top-line winger Matthew Knies. "It's been a pretty big goal differential. We haven't gotten points from them."

This showdown with the Sabres is sandwiched between two games against the Boston Bruins, who are trending towards being Toronto's first-round playoff opponent. But there's no excuse to look past Buffalo even though the Sabres are 10 points out of a playoff spot. 

"We've given up 15 goals against this team in two games," coach Sheldon Keefe reminded. "It is one of the most skilled teams in this league, so if you don't defend, don't take care of the puck, you make it easy on them, they make you look bad. It's not just us, it’s teams across the league. When they're at their best, that's what they do, and we have to respect that with how we play. We got to adapt and be aware of the style of game. It's a different type of game when you play against them ... the game tends to be wide open, and we have to manage that."

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Ilya Samsonov allowed five goals on 19 shots before being pulled during the December game in Buffalo. He'll get the start on Wednesday. Keefe believes the goalie has his swagger back after a rocky start to the season, which saw him clear waivers on Jan. 1. 

"That's a big part of his game and he's been building on that," Keefe said. "Obviously we know he's been through some tough times here and has found his way through it. He's done the work, so I think he's just feeling good in that sense. I think we're in a different place as a team right now than we were when we played these guys last. I would say the same about Sammy. It's been good to see that growth through the season and he gets a chance to put it on display tonight."

Samsonov made 32 saves in a shootout win over the New York Rangers in his last appearance on Saturday. 

"He was fantastic," said centre John Tavares. "As he’s kind of worked his way back, it's the type of form that’s typical from him. He’s been great. Just battling hard, confident, challenging and just never quitting. He just always has a chance and just did a tremendous job battling. He’s a great competitor. You can see it in his eyes day to day in how he prepares and how he works and certainly in those moments."

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen gets the start for the Sabres, coach Don Granato confirmed.  

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After going on a seven game win streak, the Leafs have come back to earth going 2-2-0 in their past four outings, which have all come at home. 

"It's been a little more up and down," Keefe acknowledged. "We've got to really work toward that consistency level in this building in particular."

The Leafs have a better record on the road (.700 points percentage) than at home (.581) this season. 

Toronto has won nine of 11 games overall, but Keefe is not satisfied. 

"We got to do it for longer than we have," he stressed. "I think we've shown tremendous growth through that and showed tremendous capacity to play the way we need to play and do it for a period of time. To me, that time has to grow. We have to do it for longer."

"It's just a question of staying in the present moment," said Benoit. "Bad games happen, you just don't want them to slide for two, three, four games in a row. Just learn from your mistakes and then forget about it and just keep moving on." 

The consistency issue is also popping up during games. On Monday against Boston, Keefe liked his team's start, but saw a dip after a poor power play in the first period. 

"Momentum switches and now we're on our heels and we slip a little bit in our detail and physicality and all these things, while the other team is pushing," Keefe said. "That's the kind of stuff we have to find a greater consistency in, and just do the necessary things for a longer period of time both in a game and over the schedule." 


After missing Tuesday's practice due to illness, centre David Kampf was all smiles as he took the ice for Wednesday's skate. 

"Feeling better today," said Keefe. "He's going to be a game-time decision."

He's not the only one. 

"It seems like we're going through it again here," Keefe said of the flu bug. "This is catching up to us again, some of these illnesses, so we've got some others as well that will be a game-time decision."


Leafs centre Auston Matthews scored a highlight-reel goal against the Sabres in December. 

"He did a spin-o-rama shot on the ice from the corner," recalled defenceman Rasmus Dahlin. "So, you got to be on him all the time, you can't give him any space because he'll score goals like that. 

Matthews' spin-o-rama goal whizzed by Dahlin who was standing near the front of the net. Is that a play that can even be defended? 

"That one was impossible, I would say," the 23-year-old said with a smile. "Can't do much about that one ... The stuff he's doing is unreal. It's fun to watch, but today I'll try and take away his time."

Matthews has been held without a goal in four of five games as Toronto's top line has cooled off a bit following a red-hot run. 

"There's still chances and still opportunities we're getting," Knies said, "but there's another level and another gear that we can hit. We're trying to show that. It's only getting better and this a good test for us today."

Dahlin will see a lot of the Leafs top line. He'll see a lot of everyone. Dahlin leads the league in average ice time per game (28:35) since the All-Star break. He skipped a practice in late February for load management. 

"Made me more eager to go out yesterday," he said of Buffalo's Tuesday practice. "You got to take care of your body and do everything times two, I would say, eat right, sleep right, recover, you have to do everything you can to be fresh."   

"He approached practice as if it was a game yesterday," said Granato. "He's a tone setter. He's an ultra-competitive guy." 

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Knies took a hooking penalty on Bruins defenceman Charlie McAvoy in Monday's game. 

"I got to stay out of the box," the 21-year-old rookie said. "I'm taking a lot of stick penalties and that's hurting our team, so I got to fix that."

Knies was whistled for high-sticking Rangers defenceman K'Andre Miller during Saturday's game against New York. 

Among Leafs forwards only Max Domi (25) has taken more penalties than Knies (14). 

Keefe suggests there's a learning curve for Knies, who played the last two seasons at the University of Minnesota. 

"In terms of high sticks and stuff like that, college players play in a league with full cages," Keefe said, highlighting the additional facial protection. "I think those kind of guys are maybe less responsible or less aware of their stick ... Just in general, when you got a cage on you're a little more reckless and those are the kind of things you learn over time." 

Knies refused to make any excuses. 

"I got to move my feet," he said. "It's a faster game, so I got to move my feet more and play with my hands a little bit less. I got to stop reaching and just moving my feet to get in the right spots."

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Defenceman Mark Giordano, who sustained a concussion on Feb. 29, has resumed skating this week. 

"It's good to see him on the ice again," said Benoit. "It was kind of scary seeing him fall like that into the boards. He's taking care of himself right now and just trying to get back in game shape."

There's no timeline for Giordano's return to game action. 


Projected Leafs lineup based on practice lines on Tuesday: 


Knies - Matthews - Marner

Bertuzzi - Domi - Nylander

McMann - Tavares - Jarnkrok

Holmberg - Kampf - Reaves


Rielly - Lyubushkin

Brodie - Liljegren

Benoit - McCabe 


Samsonov starts