Keefe frustrated as Maple Leafs are 'no-shows' against Sabres, again

Jeff Skinner scored the game-winning goal as part of a third period that saw the Buffalo Sabres tally three, lifting them over the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-2.

TORONTO – The good news about Toronto’s first-round playoff opponent is that it won’t be the Buffalo Sabres.

Boy, do the Maple Leafs’ cross-lake neighbours have their number.

Crumple up the standings page. It’s irrelevant whenever these two rivals clash.

With their decisive and deserved 5-2 road victory Tuesday, the Sabres became the only club to beat the Leafs three times this season, outscoring them by a grand total of 15-5 over their past three outings.

"That's four games against this team. We have been no-shows in all four. It's hard to pinpoint. Seems like every year there’s one team that, for whatever reason, you don't have your game against them," Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said.

“It's been puzzling all season, right? I mean, games like this is why we're still competing for home ice in the first round.”

If it’s a disturbing trend for these Leafs, this habit of routinely submitting subpar performances against non-playoff squads. It’s also a trend that won’t be so relevant in three weeks.

Of the four Atlantic Division powers, the Maple Leafs have the best points percentage against playoff-bound competition and the worst points percentage against those headed for the draft lottery.

Go figure.

“It just didn’t seem like we had much energy on the bench, much energy on the ice,” lamented Auston Matthews, who had just one goal to go with his minus-6 rating during this trio of losses to Buffalo.

“Just kinda one of those nights.”

Keefe had hoped his group’s humbling in Hamilton would stir some inspiration as Toronto begins to ride out the string and heal its wounds for what matters.

“These are the kind of games that can be challenging. We're just coming off clinching a playoff spot and you got a non-playoff team coming in,” Keefe said.

“We wish we didn't have nights like this. We would be a team that’s competing for a Presidents’ Trophy, be in that mix.”

Meanwhile, the “upbeat” Sabres (Peyton Krebs’ word) were rallying around the debut of future star Owen Power and savouring the role of underdog.

Kyle Okposo’s power-play snipe with one tick remaining in a Morgan Rielly high-sticking minor opened the scoring in Period 1.

Leafs defenceman Timothy Liljegren, hopping back in the lineup after sitting two games as a healthy scratch, tied things up in the second period.

But a second power-play strike — Tage Thompson skillfully taking a puck off the skate blade from Alex Tuch and whipping it in stride past Erik Källgren — gave the Sabres a lead they would not relinquish.

Early in the third frame, Toronto’s sloppy execution and half-hearted commitment allowed Jeff Skinner to slam the coffin.

“When Auston’s coming right down the pike with a chance to tie the game, and he’s in the clear, and he forces a pass, and turns it over, and we’re soft on defence, and now it's 3-1, to me the game’s over,” Keefe said.

The Sabres were full value here.

They edged the Maple Leafs in shot attempts (51-46) and expected goals (3.24-2.81). They dressed the better goalie [Craig Anderson], they were sharper on special teams, and they were more engaged in the battles, outhitting the home side 35-16.

“It’s hard to believe, but I do think we’re ready to play,” Morgan Rielly argued. “I personally believe it's not a matter of our mindset or our preparation, but ultimately when they kind of outwork us and out-chance us and carry the play, you're left wondering what leads to that. It comes down to a matter of execution and compete.”

As in, the Sabres competed, and the Leafs not so much.

“We’ve made it really easy on them,” Keefe said. “We’ve been complete no-shows physically in these games.”

The Maple Leafs should have no excuse Thursday.

Jack Campbell will get the crease when they host Alex Ovechkin and the postseason-bound Washington Capitals.

“We've played really well against playoff teams, the high-quality teams in the league. So, there's an expectation we’ll bounce back. From that sense of it, it’s easy for me to push past this one. But it doesn’t make it any less frustrating tonight,” said Keefe, finding the silver lining.

“We don’t have to play Buffalo anymore this year.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Blue-chip NCAA prospect Matthew Knies is set to meet Kyle Dubas Wednesday in Minnesota to discuss his future. The door is open for the 19-year-old to hop aboard the wagon and sign on for a Toronto playoff run. Or he can stay in school and try for one more championship bid with the Gophers

“He’s had a monster season in college hockey. Not just in college hockey, but in world juniors, Olympics, he’s really made his mark. We’re very excited about having him in the organization,” said Keefe, who has watched Knies’ highlights.

“[He’s] going through a process right now in sorting through what’s going to be the next step for him. When the time is right for him, our team will, of course, welcome him. Whether it’s this season or down the line, they’re going to go through that process.”

• Quote of the Day comes from Sabres coach Don Granato on Matthews, his red-hot former pupil: “The scary thing is, I've seen signs that he can do more.”

• Dahlin is increasingly fun to watch. The 21-year-old is coming into his own as Buffalo’s most trusted D-man. Granato didn’t own last change, but his preference was to have Dahlin square off against the Matthews line.

“He's an ultra-competitor. He wants the toughest matchup there is. He asks for it,” Granato says.

Kyle Okposo — as thoughtful a quote as you’ll find off the QEW — says the 2018 first-overall pick is one of the most driven people he knows.

"He wants to prove that he's better,” Okposo said. “He gets very fiery and super competitive. It's great to see him take the steps he has this year. I think his defensive play has come a really long way. He thrives in those matchups.”

• Michael Bunting’s career-long goal drought has extended to 17 games. He came so close to quenching it:

• Power made a strong first impression in his debut, busting up a 2-on-1 and getting fed a steady dose of Toronto’s top line over his 19:50 of work. The teenager didn’t look out of place at all, stealing a puck, throwing a hit, making a block, and finishing plus-2.

"Super talent," Keefe said of the University of Michigan alum. "Size. Skill. Poise. A lot of similarities to Dahlin, I think, in terms of how they move and the presence they have on the ice."

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