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Make-Or-Break Week / A Legend Passes

February 21, 2023, 12:14 AM ET [1740 Comments]
Hank Balling
Buffalo Sabres Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
The playoff chase is officially on.

Don Granato’s Sabres will kick off the team's most meaningful week of hockey in a decade starting tomorrow against the Toronto Maple Leafs at “home” in yet another edition of the I-190/QEW rivalry. “Home” is in quotes, of course, because Sabres fans know all too well that Leafs fans will likely fill the KeyBank Center and occupy 50% or more of the seats, as they usually do.

The atmosphere at these games is always fantastic, but unfortunately due to a weird (read: bad) quirk of the schedule, this will be the one-and-only meeting between the two teams in Buffalo this season.

Gary Bettman: Ya blew it.

With the Leafs enjoying a strong season yet again, General Manager Kyle Dubas has opted to push all his chips to the middle of the table by acquiring former Sabre Ryan O’Reilly along with physical depth forward Noel Acciari from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for a 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th round pick in various upcoming drafts. It’ll be O’Reilly’s first game in Buffalo as a Maple Leaf, and one has to wonder what the reception will be from Sabres fans in attendance.

O’Reilly never received the kind of – shall we say – emphatic reception Jack Eichel did upon his return to Buffalo when #90 returned as a member of the Blues. There are a lot of reasons for this: O’Reilly was never touted as a singular savior, O’Reilly never formally asked for a trade publicly (even if his intentions were transparent) and O’Reilly never rubbed fans the wrong way that the bristly Eichel did.

Still, seeing ROR don the Maple Leafs blue-and-white may very well elicit some animosity from the Sabres faithful. From a Maple Leafs perspective, the acquisition of the Ontario native makes perfect sense based on his skill set. He slots in perfectly as a 3rd line center behind Tavares and Matthews with his strong two-way game and faceoff prowess. O’Reilly went 12/14 on the dot during his first game.

The Sabres, meanwhile, will look to buck a trend of uneven performance when returning from a road trip. It has seemed for a while that the Sabres tend to struggle in the first game home when coming off a successful road trip, and the stats somewhat bear that out. Here’s how they’ve done coming off multi-game away road trips:

Away, October 18-25; return against Montreal – Loss

Away, November 4-5; return against Arizona – Loss

Away, November 16-22; return against St. Louis – Win

Away, December 15-19; return against Detroit – Win

Away, December 31-January 3; return against Minnesota – Win

Away, January 23-28; Return against Carolina – Loss

That 3-3 record coming off a road trip could be partly attributable to jet lag and tiredness from travel. Fair enough. It’s also fair to say that for a team that is trying to win back fans after years of disappointment, squandering the good will of a successful trip with a home dud performance erases a lot of the positive energy they earned when away from the rink.

Playing the Leafs at home usually cures that problem. The Sabres are 73-31-8 all-time against the Maple Leafs when playing in Buffalo, according to BuffaloHockeyCentral.com, and more improbably, the Sabres were 16-6-1 during the 2010s when the Sabres were an absolute tire fire.

This game has the makings of a season-altering performance for the Sabres if they’re able to build off the momentum of their most recent west-coast swing.

Games against Tampa, Florida, Washington and Columbus follow the club’s matchup against Toronto. The contests against Florida and Washington are absolutely crucial games for the Sabres who are in direct competition with those squads for one of the two wildcard spots. It’s honestly hard to find any kind of parallel to a time within the last 10 years for how important those two matchups will be; a win against both will catapult the Sabres to playoff race relevance, while losses against both will severely hamper their chances of making the post-season dance for the first time in over a decade.

It's crunch time for the Sabres. We’ll see if they’re up to the task.


I was saddened to hear former Sabres Director of Public Relations Paul Wieland passed away last Thursday at the age of 84.

For those who don’t know, Wieland was the mad maverick behind the fictional character of Taro Tsujimoto, whom the Sabres “drafted” from the Tokyo Katanas in the 11th round of the 1974 draft. While the Japanese player did not technically exist, Tsujimoto – and Wieland by extension – are an indelible part of Sabres lore as a result of the ruse. I had the good fortune to interact with Mr. Wieland on several occasions while he was a professor at St. Bonaventure, and I was News Editor at The Bona Venture. I'll remember his wry smile.

My condolences to his friends and family.
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