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Sabres down disinterested Maple Leafs again in top pick Owen Power's NHL debut

TORONTO — Sheldon Keefe took at least one positive from Tuesday — the Maple Leafs have seen the last of their closest geographic rival this season. Other than that, Toronto's head coach can't turn the page quick enough.
Buffalo Sabres forward Kyle Okposo, not shown, scores on Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Erik Kallgren (50) as teammate Sabres forward Dylan Cozens (24) watches for the possible rebound during first period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO — Sheldon Keefe took at least one positive from Tuesday — the Maple Leafs have seen the last of their closest geographic rival this season. 

Other than that, Toronto's head coach can't turn the page quick enough.

Tage Thompson had a goal and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres downed the disinterested Leafs 5-2 to take the season series 3-1-0 against a playoff-bound opponent that began the night 37 points clear in the standings.

"It wasn't good," said Keefe, whose club escaped Buffalo with a 5-4 victory in November, but lost the next three meetings. "We've been no-shows in all four (games). 

"It's hard to pinpoint."

Sabres defenceman Owen Power — the No. 1 pick at the 2021 draft — made his NHL debut after signing an entry-level contract last week. The six-foot-six blue-liner spent two seasons with the Michigan Wolverines before turning pro following his school's defeat in the NCAA's Frozen Four tournament.

"I was pretty calm, but obviously there were some nerves," the native of nearby Mississauga, Ont., said after finishing with nearly 20 minutes of ice time and a plus-2 rating. "This is something you dream of as a kid."

"Tremendous job," Buffalo head coach Don Granato said of the 19-year-old. "I had no doubt he's rehearsed being in this building and being in this league many times.

"And it looked like it."

The Leafs, meanwhile, could well look back at these games against the rebuilding Sabres – and a string of disappointing performances versus some of the league's other lesser lights – if they're unable secure home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Performances like Tuesday are also the reason Toronto is no longer realistically in the race for first in the Atlantic Division with the Florida Panthers. 

"You wish that you didn't have nights like this," Keefe said. "Reality is lots of teams have nights like this, which is why not a lot of teams have 100 points like we do. 

"We've done a lot of good things this season." 

Just not on this night — or any others when the Sabres were on the other side in 2021-22.

Kyle Okposo, Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Dahlin and Rasmus Asplund, into an empty net, had the other goals for Buffalo (27-37-11). Alex Tuch and Victor Olofsson added two assists each.

Craig Anderson made 23 saves for his third straight victory against the Leafs, including outdoors at the Heritage Classic, as the Sabres became the only team to defeat Toronto three times in 2021-22.

"You've got to keep it in perspective," Granato said. "This sport, it could go the other way. I'm not going to sit here and say we did anything to the Leafs. 

"We got some bounces tonight and we took advantage of breaks."

Timothy Liljegren and Alexander Kerfoot replied Toronto (47-20-6). Morgan Rielly chipped in with two assists to give him a career-high 53 on the year. Erik Kallgren stopped 23 shots.

"It's been a couple against this team you leave here disappointed," Rielly said. "Tonight's no different."

NHL goal leader Auston Matthews saw his 16-game point streak come to an end for Toronto, while Mitch Marner's run was halted at 13 contests.

"We just didn't play well," Matthews said. "From the start it just didn't seem like we had much energy on the bench, much energy on the ice."

Matthews had found the back of the net a franchise-record 58 times this season coming into Tuesday, but just once against the Sabres.

Power's welcome-to-the-NHL moment came quick — he started for Buffalo against Toronto's top line featuring Matthews and Marner. 

The young defender got through that shift unscathed and then broke up a 2-on-1 later in the period with the teams playing 4 on 4 when Mark Giordano tried to find Matthews.

"His hockey IQ jumps out," Matthews, the No. 1 pick in 2016, said of Power. "Not the flashiest guy out there, but he looks solid. 

"He obviously belonged out there, didn't look like he was a rookie playing in his first game."

Okposo opened the scoring on a Buffalo power play at 7:25 of the first period when he beat Kallgren upstairs for his 19th.

Looking to become just the third NHLer to reach 60 goals since 1995-96, Matthews had a couple chances as the period wore on, but Anderson shut the door at every turn.

The Leafs made it 1-1 at 2:09 of the second when Liljegren pinched down to bank William Nylander's end-boards rebound in off Anderson's pad for his fourth.

Matthews was denied again by Anderson with the blocker moments later and appeared to have some words with the veteran goaltender once play was whistled down. 

"I've gotten to know him a little bit over the years," said Matthews, who scored four times on Anderson in his NHL debut against the Ottawa Senators. "He gave them a chance to win. We had some good opportunities. He made some big saves."

Buffalo retook the lead on another man advantage when Tuch made a nice move in the neutral zone to set up Thompson, who kicked the puck from his skate to his stick and fired home his team-leading 33rd at 9:11.

Toronto came close to tying it again, but Michael Bunting's shot trickled through Anderson and off the post before the Sabres netminder robbed Liljegren on the goal line.

Denied by Kallgren's glove in the first, Skinner went blocker at 4:09 of third to make it 3-1 with his 31st off a pass from Tuch after Matthews forced a pass on the rush, prompting Keefe to put his lines in a blender.

"To me, the game's over," said the coach. "We've shown we're not interested in competing and playing and winning. 

"I'm going to least use the time to try some different things."

Buffalo pushed the lead to 4-1 just 1:34 later with Dahlin's 10th. Kerfoot got one back for the Leafs at 8:50 with his 13th.

But Asplund ended it with his seventh into an empty net to put Toronto out of its Sabres misery until next season.

"We'll push past this," Keefe said. "We don't have to play Buffalo anymore this year.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 12, 2022.


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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press