The Maple Leafs chose the low-key approach to Sheldon Keefe’s first home game, but Frederik Andersen hogged all the Hogtown screen time anyway.
Keefe can hang his first Scotiabank Arena win on Andersen’s 29 saves, including an eye-popping snare in the second period in an eventual 2-1 win over Buffalo on John Tavares’ overtime goal.
With his parents leading a clan gathering of Keefe Nation, the new coach improved to 4-1 with a difficult home-and-home split with the Sabres.
“I’ve been in this environment before (the farm team Marlies play a few times at SBA), but never quite like this, so full, as much emotion and energy,” Keefe said. “I’m hoping it’s better from here.”
Keefe’s replacing of Mike Babcock was only mentioned briefly in a pre-game in-house broadcast before many fans had arrived. Much like his predecessor, Keefe was grateful Andersen was there to save the day when his team lagged or was pushed off the puck.
“Nice to have a guy capable of that,” said Keefe, whose team lost the only game Andersen didn’t start for him, Friday in Buffalo. “You’re going to need that at certain times and it gives is confidence. It wasn’t the prettiest at times, but we found a way to get two points.”
The Leafs also won the second of back-to-back games for the first time this season, Keefe switching the rotation with Michael Hutchinson opening and Andersen closing.
“We’ve talked a little bit about how to do this scenario,” said Andersen, who seemed leery of not starting the first game. “We have a middle man in our goalie coach (Steve Briere), a little buffer there. But we talked to Sheldon as well and thought we’d try to do it this time. We started out great yesterday (Hutchinson struggled later in the 6-4 loss). It would’ve been nice to get all four points, but I’ll take two.
“When you’re seeing the puck well, you get in good position and that leads to a few more saves when you’re out of position. That’s the key to my game to track the puck around.”
Another back-to-back debate looms next week, with Toronto playing in Philadelphia on Tuesday and home again to face Nazem Kadri and the Avalanche on Wednesday.
After Andersen made two stops in OT, Tavares beat Carter Hutton glove side at the 1:45 mark. Hutton was tough on the Leafs, making 41 saves but has gone without a win for five weeks.
Andersen recorded his seventh victory against Buffalo as a Leaf and broke a tie with Curtis Joseph for the second most against the Sabres, who have been a prickly foe for Toronto going back to their birth in the early 1970s.
William Nylander scored on a power play, with Auston Matthews assisting, and though the latter has just one point the past three games he nearly had the winner in the final seconds of regulation when he went five-hole on Hutton and Marco Scandella swept it off the goal line.
For Nylander, his 10th goal came almost a year to the day he ended his damaging contract spat with the club, returning to double figures for the first time since 2017-18.
After a scoreless first period, in which Andersen had to be alert for teammates getting out-hustled to pucks and the Leafs survived a Nic Petan penalty, they hit on their own power play. Matthews braked by the boards and dished to Nylander, who was given too much room by an otherwise tight Sabres defence. Tavares and Matthews had their hands full with Jack Eichel, who won five of his first six draws and pressed the duo all night.
Buffalo thought it tied the game midway through the second as Conor Sheary ripped a wrister from the slot that Andersen coolly snagged. But the Sabres quickly pointed for a review and indeed most of the goalie’s glove was behind the line — but not the puck.
On another Leafs clearance collapse in that period, Andersen gloved a Jeff Skinner shot on his knees with no stick. Rasmus Ristolainen, one of seven defencemen deployed by the Sabres in this game, burst in through the left side of the Leafs and beat Andersen early in the third period.
BEST FOOT FORWARD
Keefe was glad to have Alexander Kerfoot back in the lineup after a two-game league suspension from an illegal hit in the game a week ago against Colorado. Kerfoot flew off the bench in the first period on a long change to keep a puck in during the first period.
His return meant Jason Spezza sat after being one of Keefe’s best players in the first four games. But the coach said the 36-year-old Spezza wouldn’t necessarily sit every portion of a back-to-back, citing the Leafs being on the ice six straight days for resting him Saturday.
Tavares had his 400th NHL assist on the Nylander goal … The Marlies are 4-1 under co-coaches A.J. MacLean and Ron Davison, but as Elliotte Friedman reported on Hockey Night In Canada, many unemployed minor pro and former NHL bench bosses would love the gig … In a touching pre-game Hockey Fights Cancer ceremony, young survivor Khanya Solano and her family rang the bell to signify the end of her chemo treatments. The Leafs will auction off their purple warm-up sweaters and sticks … Leaf defenceman Cody Ceci apologized to referee Ian Walsh whom he surprised by hitting about 15 feet away from the net in open ice with a wild third period wrist shot … For the first time since mid-October, the Leafs have gone two games without allowing a power play goal.