BUFFALO — Two men with lots of history between them, seemingly far removed now from the pinnacle of their sport.
But hoping to get back there someday.
Mike Babcock and Dan Bylsma faced each other as NHL head coaches in a regular season game for the first time in 18 months Wednesday night, but the situation couldn’t have been more difficult.
Back on April 9, 2014, Byslma was in charge of the 109-point Pittsburgh Penguins starring Sidney Crosby, Babcock behind the bench of the perennially-powerful Detroit Red Wings, then headed to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the 23rd straight season.
By that point, Babcock had already coached Bylsma in Anaheim, and the two had met in a Cup final coaching duel. Could either have imagined then how drastically their circumstances would change?
Babcock spurned the Buffalo Sabres to accept $50 million from the Toronto Maple Leafs this summer after departing Detroit, while Bylsma ended a year’s exile and accepted the job with the Sabres that Babcock didn’t want. Both are facing massive rebuilding jobs with their new clubs, and they’ll be measured against each other for years as division rivals.
“It’s where we’re at,” said Bylsma with a shrug, smiling at the memories of the powerful teams he and Babcock used to lead. “He’s battling with his team, and we’re doing exactly the same thing with our group.”
Bylsma won that last meeting with Babcock before being unceremoniously dumped after the 2014 playoffs, and he won again Wednesday night — albeit in a game with much less star power, talent and overall pizzazz.
The Sabres trailed 1-0 until the 55-minute mark, tied it on Evander Kane’s first goal in a Buffalo uniform and then won a shootout, taking the game by a 2-1 score.
These two clubs, you have to believe, are destined to be not only be in the Auston Matthews Sweepstakes, but also among the lowest-scoring teams in the NHL this season. Buffalo has Kane and Jack Eichel and can dream of more flamboyant days ahead, while the next generation of stylish Leafs attackers, William Nylander and Mitch Marner, aren’t even in the NHL yet.
So it turned into a game in which you measured possession as much as chances, and saw how the Sabres hope to use their youth and speed to become an attacking squad while the Leafs, at this point, appear to be out of the entertainment business, satisfied with playing a patient, defensively-oriented game.
That was particularly the case with defenceman Jake Gardiner and centre Tyler Bozak missing due to injuries, and when you saw Babcock start the 3-on-3 overtime session with Matt Hunwick, Daniel Winnik and Nick Spaling, it was tacit confirmation the old loosey-goosey, give-up-a-chance-to-get-a-chance days of Phil Kessel and Co. are gone for good.
“We played well to start,” said Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf, sporting stitches on his upper lip from an uncalled Kane highstick. “But you saw their speed, and they found a way to get an extra point.”
Both teams could point to individual breakthroughs in this low-scoring affair. Toronto goaltender Jonathan Bernier, so leaky in the early moments of games this season, was outstanding with 34 saves and looked for a long time like he might carry the Leafs to the win.
“We’d like to keep the shots a lot lower than they were tonight,” said Hunwick.
Kane, meanwhile, scored his first goal since Jan. 21, back in his final days with the Winnipeg Jets before being sidelined for the rest of the season with shoulder surgery and then shipped to Buffalo in a blockbuster trade.
Other than a goal that was disallowed in the first game of the season, he hadn’t popped one home this season until he retrieved a giveaway at the left circle in the Leaf zone and whipped a high shot past a surprised Bernier.
“It was just nice it wasn’t disallowed this time,” said a smiling Kane, a former 30-goal shooter. “It stood as a valid goal.”
His goal was the Sabres’ 10th of the season in six games, while the Leafs have 13 — but just two in their past two games.
Eichel showed his flash and talent despite being held off the scoreboard, while the Leafs almost won in the game during the overtime period, but neither Hunwick nor James van Riemsdyk could beat Chad Johnson on excellent chances in the dying seconds.
So the Leafs have one win and four points, and the Sabres two wins and four points. Both are already 10 points behind the soaring Montreal Canadiens, and it will be fascinating to chart the progress of both teams as the season progresses.
For Bylsma and Babcock, it’s like teaching kindergarten again after achieving tenured status as university professors. They can’t really talk much about wins and championships — just teaching and getting better.
As career coaches, part of them must love the challenge. And part of them must yearn for their flashier days, when stars did their bidding and they worked into June.