This weekend, the Buffalo Sabres – a franchise from Upstate New York – will host the Toronto Maple Leafs – a franchise from Ontario – at Tim Hortons Field… in Hamilton, Ontario. The 2022 Heritage Classic, geographically muddled as ever, pits two teams at very different moments in their cycles against one another.
The Leafs, coached by Sheldon Keefe, are halfway through their Stanley Cup window. They’re flying high in the Metropolitan Division and are desperate to break their playoff drought this spring.
The Sabres, coached by Don Granato, are in the midst of yet another rebuild. GM Kevyn Adams will sell at the deadline, hoping to acquire picks and prospects to help the team in the future.
However, none of that will matter when the puck drops in the Hammer at 8 p.m. (GMT) on Sunday. Toronto and Buffalo will battle for a pair of points in the elements with 24,000 fans in attendance, and it might even snow. It’s certainly worth turning in for.
Toronto Maple Leafs Aiming for Heritage Classic Win
As noted, the Leafs are playoff-bound. Their 37-16-5 record on the season leaves them third in the Metro with two dozen fixtures left to play. By all accounts, the city of Toronto has a strong team to cheer for.
Although it’s John Tavares who wears the ‘C’ in Leafland, Auston Matthews is Toronto’s talisman. The 24-year-old, a former Zurich Lion, is on pace to score 109 points (63 goals, 46 assists) in 79 appearances this season – a ridiculous rate, even by his standards.
And, frighteningly for their opponents, Matthews isn’t the only Maple Leaf putting up big numbers. Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting, his linemates, are also producing offence at a startling rate, with Nick Robertson’s return to the line-up sparking Toronto’s second line back into form.
Although Toronto’s defence, accused of being soft in front of their net, has struggled of late, their biggest weakness is in net.
Jack Campbell, an All-Star in January, has underperformed since Christmas and will miss the Heritage Classic through injury. Petr Mrazek, a free-agent arrival last summer, has disappointed since… arriving as a free agent last summer. If you like stats, here’s one for you. Toronto’s save percentage has been sub-.900 in four of the last five months.
Will the Leafs’ shaky goaltending cost them in the Heritage Classic?
Buffalo Sabres Enjoying Post-Eichel Era
Tage Thompson is excited to experience the great outdoors with his teammates.
“I think the exposure for us and our team is going to be great,” he said ahead of Sunday’s match. “We’re a young group right now. We’re going through some learning curves and some growing pains I think that’s only going to make us better, just learning to work through this adversity.”
Ultimately, the 24-year-old is right.
The Sabres aren’t going anywhere fast, they’re 19-32-8 on the season and lost their franchise player at the start of the campaign.
However, there are reasons to be optimistic about Buffalo’s future. Thompson, in his first season as an NHL centreman, is on pace for a career-high 60 points (33 goals, 27 assists). Rasmus Dahlin, the first overall pick in 2018, has also made significant progress.
On Thursday, the Sabres demonstrated their potential by beating Jack Eichel’s Vegas Golden Knights.
“This is about the loudest I’ve heard this place ever,” Eichel snarked about the arena he started his career in. “It only took seven years and me leaving for them to get into the game.”
Regardless, Buffalo approach Sunday’s clash with a singular goal – to upset the Leafs. Will they do it?
The 2022 Heritage Classic is set to be must-watch hockey, and it’s live on FreeSports from 20:00 GMT on Sunday 13 March.