By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
While watching Friday’s thoroughly entertaining game between the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs – eventually won by the Sabres by a 6-4 count – it was easy to think about Hank Bullough.
Yes, Hank Bullough – the former Buffalo Bills head coach who died this past week. Yes, that will require some explanation about how he could be compared to former Toronto coach Mike Babcock. So stay with me for a little while.
Bullough’s timing was all wrong when it came to Buffalo. He was the defensive coordinator of the team in 1985, a veteran coach who had established a reputation as one of the good ones in his profession. When it was time to push Kay Stephenson out the door, Bullough was about the only logical choice.
The problem was that the Bills’ front office was just starting to get out of the fog that had surrounded the team since Chuck Knox left at the end of the 1982 season. Therefore, no coach was going to do well in that position.
However, Bullough seemed particularly miscast as the head coach. It was a dramatic example of “The Peter Principle” – which states that people rise up an organization until they reach a point of incompetence. For Bullough, that seemed to be the head coach. Not only did the Bills not improve, but Bullough was a walking factory for malaprops that made him the subject of ridicule. Who can forget “they took the sail right out of our winds?”
The situation didn’t get any better in 1986. That brings us to one of my favorite football stories from that era, which I believe popped up in one of Vic Carucci’s fine books. The Bills were playing in Tampa Bay against the Bucs, and there were rumors that Buffalo was one loss away from a change at head coach. The Bills’ defense gathered before the first play from scrimmage.
That’s when Bruce Smith had a powerful message for the rest of the team. “If anyone makes a tackle today,” he said sternly, “I’m going to kick the (stuffing) out of them.”
The Bills made a few tackles that day, but not enough to prevent a loss. Bullough was indeed fired shortly after that, and someone named Marv Levy took over. You know the rest.
Playing with fire
That brings us to the Maple Leafs. There had been rumors that Babcock wasn’t particularly popular with the Toronto players. Babcock at one point made a summer trip to Arizona to try to mend fences with superstar Auston Matthews. This season the Leafs entered the season with plenty of talent but a small window to put it all together because of the potential for salary cap problems.
The Maple Leafs had been playing mediocre hockey until November 9, when they went on a six-game losing streak. That was enough for management, which showed Babcock the door in favor of Sheldon Keefe.
Once Keefe took over, the Leafs won three in a row – all by at least two goals. In the Leafs’ last game before Friday’s, they beat the Red Wings, 6-0, and outshot them by a 54-25 margin. The players didn’t come out singing “Ding dong, the witch is dead,” but they sure played like it in that stretch.
What’s more, it looked like Toronto was picking up where it left off when it started playing the Sabres on Friday. John Tavares scored two goals in the first 22 minutes of play. The Leafs had a 2-0 lead on a team that had gone 2-8-3 in its last 13 starts. The Maple Leafs had scored nine straight goals against their opponents. There was no reason to think the two teams would alter their directions in the next 38 minutes of play.
Then, everything changed. Suddenly Toronto was the one with the leaky defense, while the Sabres were showing an ability to overcome adversity for the first time in a quite a while. The resulting Buffalo victory added up to a fun afternoon/early evening of hockey that left no one asking for refunds.
“You can feel that it was a highlight day,” Buffalo coach Ralph Krueger said about his first taste of a regular season game between the two rivals. “It was an experience outside of the regular 82-game schedule. You could feel it from the get-go. It was a lot of fun.”
A stirring comeback
Jeff Skinner started the comeback at 5:45 of the second period. Jack Eichel followed by jumping into the play after leaving the penalty box and picking a corner like a true goal-scorer. Casey Mittelstadt tipped one home for his first goal since … let me check … October 19. Eichel drew three players to him behind the net, leaving Victor Olofsson alone. Pass, shot, score.
That added up to four goals in the second period, which was pretty good for a team that had scored four goals in a game once in its last six starts.
Then it was a matter of holding on. Twice the Maple Leafs climbed within a goal in the third period, and twice the Sabres responded by scoring. Buffalo had some help from goalie Linus Ullmark, who stopped some of the league’s best scorers when they had great opportunities. On a day with plenty of good signs for the Sabres, the ability to withstand that pressure was around the top of the list.
“We’ve talked a lot about it, but there’s only so much you can say,” said Jimmy Vesey, who has a goal in his last three games. “You have to go on the ice and do it. Tonight we showed a lot of resiliency. Maybe we need that. It feels good.”
“That’s what good teams do,” Eichel added about not letting Toronto get that tying goal. “They don’t let the opposition come back. They put teams away. It’s important to do that.”
Now comes the fun part. We get to see how the teams react to this immediately, as they play again on Saturday night in Toronto. The Maple Leafs looked as if they need some help at backup goalie, as Michael Hutchinson is 0-5-1 this season and hasn’t won a game in the NHL since January. They’ll have Frederik Andersen (12-5-3, 2.55 GAA) in goal for the rematch. Toronto on Friday also had some costly defensive breakdowns, which need to be cleaned up if the Maple Leafs are serious about climbing up the Eastern Conference standings.
The Sabres, meanwhile, need to keep getting scoring from players like Vesey and Mittelstadt to take the offensive pressure off of Eichel and Skinner. A power-play goal from a unit that is 1 for its last 35 would be appreciated. And, as Bullough once said, it would help to show “a good work ethnic.”
Was Friday just a hiccup or the start of a new trend for these teams? Is the honeymoon over for Keefe and Co.? Are the Sabres ready to play like they did in the opening weeks of the season again?
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)