It was Hockey Night in Toronto with the 26th and 30th place teams doing battle. Lots of turnovers, lots of mistakes and a fair bit of scoring punctuated a game that had almost no meaning, except to the Edmonton Oilers and the players who are battling for future employment.
The NHL season lasts 186 days, during which 30 teams play 1,230 games. It’s difficult to fathom that there has been, or will be, a more depressing place in the hockey world than the Air Canada Centre Wednesday night for a clash between the 26th and 30th best teams in the NHL.
The fact that the game went to a shootout, with the Toronto Maple Leafs beating the Buffalo Sabres 4-3, probably pleased only the Edmonton Oilers, who are now only three points ahead of the Sabres for 30th overall and a 100 percent chance to get either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. With the win, the Leafs moved a full 13 points ahead of the Oilers and 16 ahead of Buffalo, making a collapse of biblical proportions the only way the Maple Leafs can possibly hope for those kinds of odds.
The home arena in Toronto is filled with corporations that pay hard-earned money for their tickets, which gives it all the raucousness of a library at the best of times. But for a game like this it’s even worse. Many stayed home and the ones who were there were torn between wanting to see a win in their hearts, but in their heads knowing a loss would be a better result.
(And for the conspiracy theorists out there, it wasn’t as though both teams didn’t try. The Leafs sat out Nazem Kadri in the second of a three-game team suspension and the Sabres started Anders Lindback in goal. At one point in the game, the Leafs had a forward line of Zach Sill between Brandon Kozun and Joakim Lindstrom with a defense pairing of Andrew MacWilliam and Tim Erixon. The Sabres countered with a line of Zac Dalpe between Tim Schaller and Nicolas Deslauriers.)
The most indicative moment of the night came in the second period when the band Arkells appeared on the scoreboard. The lead singer, Max Kerman was asked about his favorite memory of being a Leafs fan and responded by saying Rob Pearson once lived in his neighborhood. Ugh. In the press box, there was one pro scout. One. And he was stopping over in Toronto en route to watching his son play in a hockey tournament in Rochester.
And if you ever wanted to doubt the NHL’s statisticians this game would be a good piece of evidence in your argument. According to the NHL, there were 75 hits in the game, 45 credited to the Sabres and 30 to the Maple Leafs. About 60 of them were apparently missed by everyone in attendance. How tame was it? Well at one point in the second period when Matt Moulson drove hard to the Toronto net, he got up and patted Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier on the back before heading back up the ice.
There were some bright spots. The Sabres newly formed line of Johan Larsson between Moulson and Tyler Ennis accounted for all three Sabres goals and had opportunities for several more. It pleased Sabres coach Ted Nolan to see that kind of chemistry, but what made him even more happy was the way his veterans have responded to playing with a bunch of call-ups who replaced the dearly departed at the trade deadline. “That’s why I have a lot of respect for Tyler Ennis and Matty Moulson and (Brian) Gionta,” Nolan said. “They have kids from the American Hockey League coming up here and they’re not complaining. They’re playing as hard as they can and those young kids are benefitting from it.”
Nolan said it himself that the only chance the Sabres ever has is to outwork their opponents. For the most part, they did that for two periods. When asked whether it was difficult to motivate his team for seemingly meaningless games, Nolan got his back up a little bit.
“I beg to differ, these guys have a lot to play for,” Nolan said. “These guys are playing for their livelihoods and they’re playing to get a job in the National Hockey League and sustain that. There’s all kinds of kids playing junior hockey and in Europe and all over North America trying to steal these jobs on you, so if you don’t stay on top of your game, you won’t keep them very long.”
“We’re professionals and this is the NHL,” Ennis said. “It’s a blessing to be in the NHL every day, so if you don’t compete every night, there’s something wrong with you and you won’t be in the league very long.”
At the other end of the rink, the celebration was rather subdued. Needing a shootout to defeat the worst team in the league is not exactly cause for celebration and the Kadri Affair has clearly taken its toll. Earlier in the day, team president Brendan Shanahan felt compelled to address the issue, announcing Kadri would sit out a total of three games, saying there was more to the decision than just the fact Kadri was 20 minutes late for a team meeting Sunday morning.
So it was no surprise Leafs coach Peter Horachek looked more relieved than happy about the result. It should also come as no surprise that he couldn’t really feel empathy for the hapless Sabres on this evening. “I usually just worry about our team,” Horachek said. “We’re our own worst enemy.”
Thirty-one days and 129 games to go until playoffs.