Maple Leafs-Sabres Preview
Mike Babcock knew he was taking on a challenging project when he agreed to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs. The club’s worst start in six years has certainly confirmed that.
Goaltending has been part of the problem, and Babcock will give Jonathan Bernier another chance to prove himself as Toronto looks to end a five-game road losing streak to the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night.
The Maple Leafs (1-3-1) haven’t seen signs of a turnaround in their first season under Babcock, one in which the coach doesn’t have the services of Phil Kessel after his offseason trade to Pittsburgh.
The absence of their leading scorer from each of the last six seasons has been evident for the Leafs, who have scored once or been shut out three times. They’ve lost four of their first five for the first time since dropping eight straight to open 2009-10.
Toronto held Kessel off the scoresheet Saturday, but Leo Komarov’s goal wasn’t enough in a 2-1 loss to the Penguins after Babcock picked up his first win with the Leafs on Friday, 6-3 at Columbus.
"Guys seem to be enjoying working and competing and getting more tempo in us, so we’re going to get better as a team," Babcock said. "We just want to get better quicker than the process is letting us thus far, that’s all."
Bernier allowed both goals within the first 6 1/2 minutes against the Penguins and also gave up two in the first period of a 4-0 loss to Detroit in his previous start Oct. 9 – in which he was pulled early in the second after allowing three goals on nine shots. Babcock will give Bernier the nod again, though, as he’s slightly better than James Reimer in save percentage, .900-.890.
"(Bernier) will be the first to tell you he’d like it to go better than that," Babcock said. "We need him to be better at the start of games. You can’t spot the other team two and then get started."
Bernier was in net for the last meeting with the Sabres on April 1 and gave up two goals in the first four minutes of the third in a 4-3 defeat. It was the Maple Leafs’ fifth consecutive defeat in Buffalo, where they’ll make the third stop on a four-game trip.
The Sabres (1-4-0) have had their own issues, scoring two or fewer goals four times. Sam Reinhart got his first NHL goal less than three minutes into the game Saturday but Tampa Bay rallied for a 2-1 win.
Buffalo outshot its opponent for the third time, a sign of aggressiveness that coach Dan Bylsma appreciates. That hasn’t translated into many goals, though.
"We’ve been there for three out of the (five games) for sure," Bylsma said. "That’s a good thing. I still think we can do a much better job in that regard, getting pucks and having more of a mentality of getting pucks to the net and having more people at the net to cash in on those opportunities."
Chad Johnson has started the last four with Robin Lehner injured and has posted a 2.80 goals-against average in that stretch. He’ll likely be in net again Wednesday, and former Leafs defenseman Cody Franson could play despite dealing with an undisclosed injury.
Babcock said forward Tyler Bozak should be available after he was scratched Saturday because of a lower-body injury.