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Leafs edge Sabres as Keefe’s rejigged lineup sparks outburst of depth goals

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BUFFALO — Sheldon Keefe arrived in Buffalo armed with a rookie goaltender, a rejigged lineup, and a plan for the Toronto Maple Leafs to win their first game on the sleepy half of a back-to-back.

“I want to use our depth,” Keefe proclaimed.

So, the coach made a pair of mild-surprise healthy scratches (Rasmus Sandin, Wayne Simmonds) and injected some rested legs (Travis Dermott, Kirill Semyonov) after Friday’s hard-fought comeback overtime win over the Calgary Flames.

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More interestingly, he started prospect Joseph Woll in his first NHL game and tweaked the look of all four forward units.

Those fresh combinations led to an outburst of depth goals Toronto had been searching for, and a nail-biting 5-4 victory over the Sabres.

It was a night of unlikely heroes performing for a half-full barn (at best).

David Kampf popped the Leafs on the board early with an odd one that slowly leaked through a sprawling Robert Hagg and recently recalled goaltender Aaron Dell’s legs.

Kämpf’s second of the season already doubles his output from last year with Chicago and will surely appear on whatever reel collects plays that aren’t highlights:

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Toronto native Jeff Skinner responded by one-timing a rebound off the end-boards that beat Woll clean and tied the contest, igniting his personal goal song, Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.” Seriously.

Ondrej Kase was the greatest beneficiary of the line juggle, as he enjoyed a bump to the top line alongside Auston Matthews and William Nylander.

Kase made good on his promotion, fanning on a second-period shot, then whipping a puck by Dell. The marker gives Kase a three-game goal streak, tying the longest run of his career.

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“Doesn’t matter who score. We win the game. It’s very important for us,” said Kase.

His timing and confidence have spiked now that he’s getting into the NHL rhythm. Remember, injuries limited the winger to just three games in 2020-21 with the Boston Bruins.

“I do better job and I’m in the game,” Kase said. “It’s so tough if you haven’t played the game for a while.”

As Keefe tinkers with the proper mix on the wings, another new Leaf, Michael Bunting, was given fourth-line duties alongside Semyonov and Jason Spezza. He fired a bobbling puck into the net to extend Toronto’s lead to 3-1.

“I go into every single game wanting to score. I’m a pretty hungry guy to score,” Bunting said earlier this week. “Right now, I feel like I am getting my looks at the net. I’ve had quite a few Grade-A chances, and they’re just not going in for me.”

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Tage Thompson cranked a one-timer from distance past Woll to narrow the gap before the second period closed.

John Tavares tipped a Morgan Rielly shot for a power-play goal in the third.

But the rebuilding Sabres, who defeated the high-flying Edmonton Oilers here 24 hours prior, would not die. Skinner responded with his second of the game and another round of Miley Cyrus. Then Rasmus Dahlin tied the game.

“C’mon, do it for Woller,” one of Toronto’s scratches encouraged as he rode the elevator down from the pressbox to the visitors’ dressing room.

They did.

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Rielly potted the game-winner with 11.8 seconds left in regulation. His first of the season and just the second goal scored by a Leafs D-man all year.

The Maple Leafs — winners of eight of their past nine — host the Nashville Predators Tuesday.

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Fox’s Fast 5

• Sabres head coach Don Granato on coaching a young Matthews with the U.S. national team:

“The hardest thing for me was to bite my tongue, especially going into the draft. Everyone was asking me: ‘How good is he? How good is he?’ And you don’t want to build him up; you want to let him get where he needs to be. I’ll just say I was incredibly excited to coach him at 15 years old. He was a special player then, a special talent then. Nothing he has done has surprised me or will surprise me.”

• Keefe gave Woll a few days’ notice that he’d be making his NHL debut, so Woll’s family and friends would have time to make travel arrangements and attend.

“It’d be pretty cool if everyone in my life could come and support me,” Woll said Saturday. “That’d be sweet.”

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• Dell made his Sabres debut after reluctantly starting the season in the minors and going 3-0-0 for AHL Rochester. Dell was signed as a free agent by the Leafs in the 2020 off-season, but they lost him on waivers to the New Jersey Devils before he played a single game.

• Kase reflected on his own first game in the Show, Nov. 2, 2016: “I’m a pretty nervous guy, so I was really nervous. We played against Pittsburgh, right? So all warmup I was following (Sidney) Crosby. I kept looking at the other side. It was kinda weird because in warmup you’re supposed to focus on yourself, but I kept looking like, ‘What is he doing?’”

• Simmonds was healthy-scratched for his first time as a Leaf.





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Joel Klatt answers your questions from the mailbag | Joel Klatt Show

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