Matthews’ spectacular OT winner gives Maple Leafs fifth straight win

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Auston Matthews has a flair for the dramatic, doesn’t he?

We’ll talk about his first goal of the game — his 14th in 14 games this season — in a bit, but it was his overtime winner that was especially special as the Toronto Maple Leafs saw off the Buffalo Sabres in a 4-3 win on NBCSN on Tuesday.

We’ve gotten used to Matthews scoring timely goals, and his snapping wrist shot off a quick two drag from the top of the left circle that went bar down past Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark with 2.7 seconds left in overtime is right up there with his best.

Just watch it happen:

Make that 15 goals in 14 games for Matthews and five goals and two assists in three games since missing 14 games with a shoulder injury. The only limit that there seems to be with Matthews and his goal and point totals this season rest in his health.

Matthews already scored a highlight reel goal earlier in the game, grabbing a puck out of the air, gently nestling down onto his stick and then wrapping it around the Sabres’ goal and into the back of the net.

Cheat codes, I say. Cheat codes.

Whatever the sorcery is, it’s helped the Maple Leafs to a five-game winning streak — three points back of the Eastern Conference-leading Tampa Bay Lightning (who etched out a 6-5 win on Tuesday to push their own win streak to four games).

For the Sabres, it’s their fourth straight loss and a continuation of a lesson that, in hockey, everything is finite.

A week ago, the Sabres won their 10th straight game much to the surprise of literally everyone in the hockey world. Skip ahead seven days and the Sabres are now reeling in four successive defeats.

You could have made the case prior to the game that Toronto had the upper hand coming in. Buffalo lost their third straight game on Monday in a tight 2-1 decision against the Nashville Predators.

But Buffalo performed admirably in the game and deserved the point they got.

Jack Eichel, known to have his own flair for the dramatic, single-handedly pull the Sabres into the lead in the third period after entering the frame down 2-1.

The Sabres peppered Fredrik Anderen at times, putting up 41 shots in the game.

Linus Ullmark had to be special at the other end of the ice, too, but there was no stopping some of the shots he faced — Matthews overtime winner being one of them — and this play right out of NHL 19 being another.

What Tuesday’s game confirmed is that a seven-game series between both of these clubs would be quite the treat for the hockey world.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Maple Leafs, Sabres meet in Atlantic Division clash

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Tonight’s matchup features two of the top teams in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference. The Maple Leafs are riding a four-game winning streak and are 11-3-0 in their past 14 games, while the Sabres have dropped three straight, including a 2-1 loss last night to Nashville.

After missing 14 games with a shoulder injury, Auston Matthews has three goals and an assist in two games since his return. Matthews has 13 goals in 13 games this season, the best goals per game mark of any player in the league. Toronto native Jeff Skinner has been electric for Buffalo this season, leading the Sabres with 20 goals (t-2nd in NHL). He had just 24 goals all last season with Carolina and played in all 82 games.

This will be the first of four meetings between these clubs this season. They will also meet in Toronto on Feb. 25 and March 3, before ending their regular season series on March 20 in Buffalo. The Leafs and Sabres have alternated wins and losses over the past six meetings.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres
Where: KeyBank Center
When: Tuesday, Dec. 4, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Maple Leafs-Sabres stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

MAPLE LEAFS
Zach HymanJohn TavaresMitch Marner
Patrick Marleau – Auston Matthews – Kasperi Kapanen
Par LindholmNazem KadriConnor Brown
Tyler EnnisFrederik GauthierAndreas Johnsson

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey
Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev
Travis DermottIgor Ozhiganov

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

SABRES
Jeff Skinner – Jack EichelSam Reinhart
Tage ThompsonCasey MittelstadtKyle Okposo
Remi ElieEvan RodriguesVladimir Sobotka
Patrik BerglundJohan LarssonZemgus Girgensons

Rasmus DahlinZach Bogosian
Lawrence PilutRasmus Ristolainen
Nathan BeaulieuCasey Nelson

Starting goalie: Linus Ullmark

Kenny Albert (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.

Soak it in: Buffalo Sabres are good

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Remember when the Buffalo Sabres were bad?

The answer is we all do. You don’t have to go that far back in the annals of hockey history to find some woefully bad Sabres teams.

But those days of Buffalo being the butt-end of jokes and all of that sort of thing seem to be over with. The western New Yorkers aren’t simply toiling as an embarrassing team anymore. It’s been a bit of a process to turn the ship around, but the fruits of that labor seem to be flourishing so far this season.

Case and point: Buffalo has now cobbled together five straight wins, including triumphs over the Tampa Bay Lightning — tops in the Atlantic Division — and the Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild, teams sitting second and third in the Central Division, respectively.

They’ve embraced the grind, have learned to weather storms and are still standing at the end of it.

In Winnipeg on Friday, the Sabres were outshot 12-4 in the first period and survived. In Minnesota on Saturday, they were again pelted in the opening frame, doubled up 18-9 on the shot counter, and still found a way to only be down by a single goal.

And in both games, they battled back in the third, tied the game and then won it late in regulation or in extra hockey, as was the case in Winnipeg. And they did it on back-to-back nights when you’d have forgiven them for packing it in early against Minnesota after Friday’s game, which needed 65 minutes and seven rounds of a shootout.

Summer acquisitions of Jeff Skinner and Carter Hutton have played massive roles in Buffalo’s ascent up the standings a month-and-a-half into the season.

Skinner has 14 goals and 21 points in 20 games this season after coming over from the Carolina Hurricanes.

Hutton is 4-0-0 in his past four games with a 1.42 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage.

Linus Ullmark is 4-0-1 in his backup role and Buffalo had the 11th best team save percentage coming into Saturday. 

Their penalty kill is in the top 10

Jason Pominville has turned back the clock with nine goals and 17 points thus far. Thirty-five years old and the wear and tear of 1,000 games? Pfft. Pominville is laughing at Father Time. 

And most importantly, they’re resilient.

“I just think we bent a little bit but we didn’t break,” Sabres head coach Phil Housley said after Friday’s win in Winnipeg. “I think last year we maybe would have broke a little more and gave the game away. We hung in there. That’s what’s great about this group, that they stick with it. We make some adjustments in between periods and they follow through with those adjustments. But it’s great for them, they’ve shown the resiliency up to this point in the season.”

The Sabres are simply an exciting team to watch these days and they’re positioning themselves to be in the playoff hunt, both this year and in the future.

Imagine that.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Fantasy Hockey: Sleepers, bargains for 2018-19

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There can be some crossover between a sleeper and a “bounce-back player”, so in some ways, consider this a supplement to Joey Alfieri’s recent fantasy post for PHT.

Either way, identifying bargains is often how you distinguish yourself from other comparably shrewd drafters. During one mock draft last season with Rotoworld writers who hauntingly wiser than I am, I somehow ended up drafting Nathan MacKinnon in the 12th round.

(If only such treasured moments happened with “real” fantasy teams, right?)

Anyway, before we get started, note that some “sleepers” are drowsier than others. In certain cases, you might want to draft someone just a little earlier than they usual go. In others, you’d be the only one who would drafted a true diamond in the rough. Considering the variety of stat categories and the swath of leagues (some shallow, some with a ton of teams or picks), this is meant as a generalized list of potential bargains.

Note: This post skews a bit toward how players are ranked/drafted in Yahoo leagues, although ESPN listings are also considered.

Players I’m especially excited about.

It’s easy to look at The Nuge’s production (tying a career-high with 24 goals, 48 points overall) and think “same old, same old.” As a former first overall pick, he’ll carry a stigma of “meh” for many.

Of course, RNH managed his 48 points despite being limited to 62 games, and he really took off once he was lined up with Connor McDavid. McDavid is the type of dynamic player who could push Nugent-Hopkins to incredible highs, to the point that he might be worth a mild reach (he’s ranked 135 in ESPN; while his ADP [average draft position] is 145 in Yahoo).

Sometimes it’s a fool’s errand to chase line combinations in Yahoo, so as a rule of thumb, make sure that the sleepers in mind can still fend for themselves outside of the cocoon of a great linemate. Nugent-Hopkins’ results are more likely to make you yawn if he loses McDavid privileges, but it won’t be “tear up your draft-day spreadsheets” bad.

We might as well stay on the subject of already-good players who could jump a considerable level if they can maintain robust linemate opportunities.

James Neal’s shown what he can do with great linemates before, scoring 88 goals in just 179 games in three seasons alongside Evgeni Malkin, with his production undercut quite a bit by a combination of injury issues and the stat-killing 2012-13 lockout.

It’s tantalizing to picture what the volatile winger might accomplish if he lands a semi-permanent spot with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Micheal Ferland scored 20 goals and 41 points riding their coattails last season, so big dreams aren’t too outrageous if you replace “Typo” with Neal.

Even if he slips down the lineup, Neal Just. Scores. Goals. He generated 25 with Vegas last season despite being limited to 71 games played. Granted, injuries are just about as frequent a consideration with Neal as goals are, so pencil in at least some mild frustration.

[More Fantasy: Pick up the Rotoworld Draft Guide]

  • J. T. Miller, C/RW

Transport yourself back to, say, the midpoint of the 2017-18 season, and recall how many people wished they had Vladislav Namestnikov on their teams. Through the first 38 games of the season, the then-Lightning forward generated 15 goals and 33 points, tying him with the likes of William Karlsson and Aleksander Barkov (while edging Patrik Laine‘s 32 points) at that moment in the campaign.

Namestnikov isn’t chopped liver, but you can chalk up much of that production to something obvious: he was riding shotgun with Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

It’s not too shocking, then, that J.T. Miller flourished once he popped into that spot following the Ryan McDonagh trade. In 19 games with the Lightning, Miller generated 10 goals and 18 points.

Miller is a decent-enough scorer on his own (22 goals and 56 points in 2016-17 with the Rangers), and there’s the possibility that he’d land with Brayden Point if he can’t stick on that super line. Still, it’s your duty to make sure that Miller at least doesn’t go undrafted.

If this post went up last week, Theo might not have been on this list for a simple reason: his contract situation was unsettled.

A week later, he isn’t on just on Vegas’ roster; he’s close to a lifer considering, with a seven-year deal. The Golden Knights have little reason to resist throwing Theodore out there in high-profile situations, meaning that the talented defenseman should receive ample power play reps, and should be the go-to guy. That’s especially true since Nate Schmidt is suspended for a quarter of the season.

If you can grab Theodore as your fourth or even third defenseman, you’re likely to be on a gravy train with biscuit wheels. Wait, is that even an efficient way to travel? Maybe we should table this “biscuit wheels” business …

[Again, you should read about rebounds.]

Ryan O'ReillyC

One of my minor quibbles with ROR, at least from a fantasy standpoint, was that he was sometimes a little trigger-shy. Heading into last season, he was under 200 shots on goal for three straight years. O’Reilly turned that around – maybe out of frustration? – by firing 230 SOG during his final season with the Sabres.

That peripheral stat might be dialed down in St. Louis, but if so, it would likely be for a good reason: O’Reilly would instead be passing to ultra-talented linemates in Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz.

If the Blues load up in that regard, that O’Reilly could be a bodacious bargain.

Other recommendations

I’m a bit more excited about the players listed above (at least relative to where they tend to be drafted, although Neal and Nuge are kind of all over the map), but these are worthy mentions.

  • Antti Raanta – Strong season as a No. 1 muted by early injury woes.
  • Jaden Schwartz – Actually, maybe you’d be better off getting him instead of Ryan O’Reilly? You could do worse than to draft one after the other goes, really.
  • Matt Duchene, Thomas Chabot, Mark Stone – Hey, someone has to score for the Senators.
  • Eric Staal – Somewhat quietly scored 42 goals and 76 points for the Wild last season, and has contract year motivation. He’s getting a little up there in age, though, as he’ll turn 34 on Oct. 29.
  • Ryan Pulock – Hey, someone has to score for the Islanders, and it can’t always be Mathew Barzal.
  • Nick Bjugstad – Looked awesome when he landed with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Not quite as exciting as Miller/RNH because he’s more dependent.
  • Daniel Sprong – Probably safer to “watchlist” rather than draft him, at least in relatively shallow, standard leagues. Then again, might be worth just pulling the trigger, considering that he seems likely to win The Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes.
  • Bo HorvatSomeone needs to score for the Canucks, and usually it’s going to be Brock Boeser, and the guys who are along with him. Horvat’s the best of those guys.
  • Paul Stastny – Could be awfully interesting in deeper leagues if he’s conjoined with Max Pacioretty, who may be in store for a monster season considering Vegas’ attacking ways.
  • Jonathan Drouin – Fantasy hockey is as much about fun as it is to pointing to your brain. You can get one of the most prominent scorers on a team, who also happens to be a ton of fun to watch, at least if you’re not a Canadiens fan hoping he can heal all wounds.
  • Carter Hutton – Your mileage will vary depending upon how much of a jump you expect from the Sabres, and how much of a threat you believe Linus Ullmark would be. To me, he’s a Dollar Store version of Raanta’s appeal as a respectable second or even third fantasy goalie. (Note: Dollar Store versions of things can be perfectly fine. Don’t growl at me, Giant Tiger/other beast-themed dollar stores.)
  • Petr Mrazek/Scott Darling – Honestly, I’m a little frightened by Carolina goalies, because duh. Still, they’re worth listing, especially if you’re expecting big things.
  • Tomas Hertl – Look, I’m only human, so I can’t ignore the lure of a forward who currently draws the rare LW/C/RW designation.

[More Fantasy: Rotoworld’s DFS Toolkit]

Any other sleepers come to mind? Go ahead and share some favorites in the comments.

Heck, feel free to gloat about previous sleeper successes, too. Why, I’ll never forget about grabbing 2005-06 Eric Staal in the final r— OK, I’ll cut it out.

MORE:
Bounce back candidates
Goalies and other risky picks

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Okposo: Players need to buy in for Sabres fortunes to change

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — An offseason of soul-searching led forward Kyle Okposo to realize a roster overhaul alone wasn’t going to improve the Buffalo Sabres’ fortunes.

Okposo figured out that he and other team leaders would also have to change their approach. They had to buy in mentally and physically if Buffalo stood a chance of climbing out of a rut after finishing last in for the third time in five years.

”Everybody talks about change and change and change. You hear it 100 times. But until you do, you haven’t,” Okposo said. ”You have to put the work in. You can’t just show up next year and say, ‘Oh, I think it’s going to be different,’ because that’s the definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

With Buffalo mired in a franchise-worst seven-year playoff drought, it’s now on the players and second-year coach Phil Housley to show they’re not the same dysfunctional team, whose season was summed up by now-traded center Ryan O'Reilly‘s claim of a losing culture having crept into the locker room.

”I’ve used those words a few time,” Okposo said, when asked if he was cautiously optimistic. ”It’s more of a fresh start, like a baptism almost.”

General manager Jason Botterill focused on shaking up an under-achieving roster through a series of trades. Buffalo acquired forwards Jeff Skinner, Conor Sheary, Tage Thompson, Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka, and signed goalie Carter Hutton in free agency.

And that was after Buffalo drafted 18-year-old Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin with the No. 1 pick.

Housley took aim at addressing the team’s culture. He opened a dialogue by allowing his leaders to air differences and raise concerns through a series of frank discussions in what became an offseason-long cleansing session.

”I give them all credit, because they have had to put themselves in a vulnerable position at times, they’ve had to listen to feedback and a lot of criticism they might not have liked to hear,” Housley said, including himself and staff in that equation. ”But I think if you are going to make a difference, and you want to change the direction of this franchise, we have to change as people.

The challenge now is seeing how the Sabres respond once they open the season hosting Boston on Oct. 4.

”There’s just a really good vibe right now,” Housley said. ”But when we face adversity, it’s going to be interesting how we handle that. And I have the trust and confidence in our group.”

DAHLIN ON D

Dahlin has already created a buzz with his smooth-skating and heads-up play-making abilities. Fans packed the Sabres practice facility to watch Dahlin take part in the team’s rookie camp in June and a prospects tournament in September. Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman told The Associated Press Dahlin has the potential to become the best defenseman in franchise history.

YOU KNOW JACK

Center Jack Eichel has changed his number, from 15 to 9, and acknowledged a need to have a more even-keeled approach by openly showing fewer signs of frustration on the ice and in the locker room. The second player selected in the 2015 draft also enters the first season of an eight-year, $80 million contract, and eager to show he’s maturing into a leader.

”The losing the last few years, I’ve never dealt with that in my life. You have to learn from it and figure out what you can do to change it,” Eichel said.

BETWEEN THE PIPES

Hutton is pegged to share the goaltending duties with Linus Ullmark, who makes the jump to the NHL on a full-time basis after spending most the past three seasons developing in the minors. They replace the tandem of Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson, who departed in free agency. Hutton enters his sixth season after spending the past two in St. Louis, where he went 30-15-5 in 62 appearances.

FROM THE CO-OWNER

”Listen, it can’t get any worse. I mean 31st is pretty much the bottom,” Sabres co-owner Kim Pegula said with a laugh. But she and her husband, Terry, remain patient.

”Consistency and growth is really where we are from an ownership standpoint, as opposed to the fan,” she said. ”We need to temper our kneejerk on that.”

THE SCHEDULE

The Sabres open with a four-game homestand before playing 12 of 17 on the road, including a western swing that has them playing five games in nine days.

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule