Things started pretty well for the Sabres in Toronto on Monday night. They carried play throughout the first period and were eventually rewarded with the game’s first goal.
Quick note for this edition. For portions of the play that aren’t ass backwards or super goofy I will keep using comic sans for max comedy. For general highlights or more serious aspects I won’t act like the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and use a normal font.
They didn’t carry that positive momentum into the second period, however. The Leafs scored three goals in just over two minutes and four total in the period to take a lead they wouldn’t surrender. A couple of the goals were fairly straightforward. John Tavares got a good tip on Jake Muzzin’s point shot – Matt Hunwick could’ve done a better job tying up Tavares on that one – and Auston Matthews cashed in an unfortunate bounce off Evan Rodrigues. The other two goals were tougher to watch.
The first was Freddie Gauthier’s backhand that chased Carter Hutton. This goal wasn’t so much a lapse by any one player on the ice. At the core, it was simply a bigger player utilizing good body position against a smaller one, but it highlights some of the oddities about Buffalo’s defensive zone coverage.
Things start harmlessly enough. The puck comes off the half-wall to Tyler Moore at the side of the net. Matt Hunwick is covering Tyler Ennis and Marco Scandella is on Moore. Moore works around behind the net and Ennis breaks off to the high slot. Meanwhile, Johan Larsson picks up Gauthier on the crease.
Moore throws the puck across the zone and things still aren’t in bad shape. Scandella stays diligent on Moore and Zemgus Girgensons chases the loose puck. Larsson is still tight to Gauthier and Hunwick is, well, he’s out there.
Now things get a little sideways. Jake Gardiner wins the race to the puck and Ennis has crept further up the ice. Now, the Sabres have used a lot of man-on-man play in the defensive zone this year. It’s hard to tell if that’s exactly what’s going on here or not. Hunwick hasn’t followed Ennis higher in the zone but he isn’t really lending any support on the puck either. Or the crease for that matter. Scandella has maintained decent position on Moore, although there’s a decent gap between the pair in this angle.
Scott Wilson has sunk low to the slot to protect against a backdoor chance but he’s also in no man’s land as is Hunwick. So I’d hesitate to say they’re truly in a man coverage situation, but whatever they’re doing, it looks pretty unusual on this play.
The puck gets dished to Gauthier with Hunwick still keeping an eye on the faceoff dot. Had he sunk a little lower in support of Girgensons, he may have had an opportunity to break up the pass. But I don’t know precisely what his responsibility is. Though I’m fairly confident hanging by the faceoff dot isn’t it.
The other goal that left me scratching my head was Tyler Ennis’ breakaway tally. It was a fast developing play that went from harmless to the back of the net in a split second.
Morgan Reilly starts the breakout for the Leafs while the Sabres have pretty good position on their forecheck. Jason Pominville is beat but he’s applying pressure. Jack Eichel is in a good spot as the second man to cut off a cross ice pass or apply pressure when called for. Jeff Skinner is high along the boards, ready to cut off Gauthier, who is Reilly’s lone outlet.
Everything is still kosher at this point. Eichel is directly between Gauthier and Moore and Skinner is in perfect position to force a pass from the Leafs’ center. Tyler Ennis is high in the neutral zone as a stretch option. But even he’s covered. Jake McCabe is out there, as is Rasmus Ristolainen. In the picture above you can kind of see Ristolainen getting in position as he stepped on the ice.
The stretch pass is Gauthier’s only choice given the Sabres in-zone structure and he tosses the puck into the neutral zone. Ristolainen appears to be in decent position, though he’s coming off the bench and working his way back to a moving target in Ennis. Still, it seems like everything is under control.