BUFFALO — When the Toronto Maple Leafs had fumbled away their second two-goal lead of the night, when the Buffalo Sabres smelled a choke job and were storming the gates late, that is when Joseph Woll felt most at ease in his hectic NHL debut.
“Goalie is a pretty unique position. You can almost feel like you’re on an island,” the thoughtful 23-year-old netminder said between salvaging his first win and gifting the game puck to his mother, Shelley.
“But I think [the key is] having the right mindset of being in the moment, keeping your confidence and not being afraid to make mistakes. You have to go through a little adversity to develop. At least I did.”
Lanky and likeable, Woll was talking big picture: about a journey that took him from Boston College blue-chipper, through an uneven Marlies experience rocked by a pandemic and those harsh pro lessons, to an evening where a brigade of Woll’s family helped increase attendance at a Sabres game to 7,992.
But the goalie could’ve been talking more specifically about how he handled the Sabres knotting his debut at 4-4 late and nearly turning his dream into a nightmare.
“To be honest, that was probably the calmest I felt the whole game. Just go out and play,” Woll smiled.
“I think a lot of times you can try to predict the future or catastrophize what can happen there, but at that point I said to myself, ‘Just enjoy being out there with this group.’ Pretty special outcome.”
A dramatic 5-4 victory on a back-to-back and a souvenir for Shelley will gloss over what Woll’s coach believed, in general, to be a burn-the-tape performance by the skaters in front of him.
"The first two periods were dreadful,” said Keefe, sounding like a man sensing a slip. “For us to get [the win], regardless of how we got it, I’m happy for him and his family. It’s a big night for him.”
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) November 14, 2021
Keefe arrived in Buffalo armed with a rookie backup, a rejigged lineup, and a plan for the Toronto Maple Leafs to win their first game on the sleepy half of a back-to-back.
"I want to use our depth," Keefe proclaimed.
So, the coach made a pair of mild surprise healthy scratches (Rasmus Sandin, Wayne Simmonds) and injected some rested legs (Travis Dermott, Kirill Semyonov) after Friday’s hard-fought comeback overtime win over the Calgary Flames.
More importantly and more interestingly, he debuted a prospect in goal tweaked the look of all four forward units. He wanted to reward the hot stick of Ondrej Kase and he was “trying to get more out of Nick Ritchie.”
Of those fresh combinations, Keefe only had praise for his checking line.
“I thought that line — [David] Kämpf, [Pierre] Engvall, [Alexander] Kerfoot — was our best by a mile,” Keefe said. “Aside from that, I didn’t like much about it.
“When you work and compete like we did tonight, the lines just don’t have a chance.”
It was a night of unlikely heroes performing for a mostly empty barn. Kämpf popped the Leafs on the board early with an odd one that slowly leaked through a sprawling Robert Hagg and recently recalled goaltender Aaron Dell’s legs.
Kämpf’s second of the season already doubles his output from last year with Chicago and will surely appear on whatever reel collects plays that aren’t highlights:
We Kampf believe that went in. pic.twitter.com/CGJu58em2q
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 14, 2021
Toronto native Jeff Skinner responded by one-timing a rebound off the end-boards that beat Woll clean and tied the contest, igniting his personal goal song, Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.” Seriously.
Kase should’ve been the greatest beneficiary of the line juggle, as he enjoyed a bump to the top line alongside Auston Matthews and William Nylander. He made good on his promotion, fanning on a second-period shot, then whipping a puck by Dell. The marker gives Kase a three-game goal streak, tying the longest run of his career.
“Doesn’t matter who score. We win the game. It’s very important for us,” said Kase.
His timing and confidence have spiked now that he’s getting into the NHL rhythm. Remember, injuries limited the winger to just three games in 2020-21 with the Boston Bruins.
"You can see his confidence continue to grow and grow in himself and probably just feeling comfortable within our system, within the team, starting to get a good feel for how we play,” John Tavares said.
As Keefe tinkers with the proper mix on the wings, another new Leaf, Michael Bunting, was given fourth-line duties alongside Semyonov and Jason Spezza. He fired a bobbling puck into the net, extending Toronto’s lead to 3-1.
“More relief than anything,” Bunting said. “All it takes is one for that floodgate to open.”
Tage Thompson blasted a one-timer from distance past Woll to narrow the gap before the second period closed.
Tavares tipped a Morgan Rielly shot for a power-play goal in the third.
But the rebuilding Sabres, who had defeated the high-flying Edmonton Oilers here 24 hours prior, refused to die.
Skinner responded with his second of the game and another round of Miley Cyrus. Then Rasmus Dahlin tied the game, making everyone but Woll nervous.
“C’mon, do it for Woller,” one of Toronto’s scratches encouraged as he rode the elevator down from the pressbox to the visitors’ dressing room.
Mercifully, they did.
Rielly cranked the game-winner with 11.8 seconds remaining in regulation. The D-man’s first of the season pinged downward off the crossbar, bounced in the blue paint and backwards across the line.
“Score like that with 11 seconds left?” Woll said. “That’s pretty cool.”
"I didn't think it was that funny," Rielly responded, wryly. "Just a little bit of good luck, so I'll take it.
“I kinda feel like early on there were plenty opportunities, a couple of posts and stuff. It's about time. Just good to get it off your mind."
Despite shuffling out of Buffalo with eight wins in their past nine games, most Maple Leafs not named Joseph Woll won’t want to dwell on this one.
“I liked that our guys fought to the end,” Keefe said.
The coach’s tone made it loud and clear he didn’t like much else.
Fox’s Fast 5
• Sabres coach Don Granato on coaching a young Auston Matthews with the U.S. national team:
“The hardest thing for me was to bite my tongue, especially going into the draft. Everyone was asking me: ‘How good is he? How good is he?’ And you don’t want to build him up; you want to let him get where he needs to be. I’ll just say I was incredibly excited to coach him at 15 years old. He was a special player then, a special talent then. Nothing he has done has surprised me or will surprise me.”
• Keefe gave Woll a few days’ notice that he’d be making his NHL debut, so Woll’s family and friends would have time to make travel arrangements and attend.
“It’d be pretty cool if everyone in my life could come and support me,” Woll said Saturday. “That’d be sweet.”
• Dell made his Sabres debut after reluctantly starting the season in the minors and going 3-0-0 for AHL Rochester. Dell was signed as a free agent by the Leafs in the 2020 off-season, but they lost him on waivers to the New Jersey Devils before he played a single game.
• Kase reflected on his own first game in the Show, Nov. 2, 2016: “I’m a pretty nervous guy, so I was really nervous. We played against Pittsburgh, right? So all warmup I was following [Sidney] Crosby. I kept looking at the other side. It was kinda weird because in warmup you’re supposed to focus on yourself, but I kept looking like, 'What is he doing?'"
• Wayne Simmonds was healthy-scratched for his first time as a Leaf.