Buffalo Sabres-Toronto Maple Leafs: One Passionate Rivalry

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As I continue to learn more about hockey, I often find myself almost subconsciously comparing it to soccer.  Perhaps this is inevitable, given that I am English, but the similarities’ between the two games is definitely a factor.

I now realise it is not as simple as this.  For example, one rule I have always applied to soccer is that once your team has a three-goal lead in any game, they are a safe bet to win.

Of late, the Buffalo Sabres have been doing their best to make me realise this theory doesn’t translate to hockey.  Two comeback wins from three-goal deficits will do that.

In hindsight, maybe hockey is better compared to the five-a-side equivalent of soccer: Indoor venue, smaller field, fewer players, more chances and consequently more goals.

However, last night’s matchup between Buffalo and the Toronto Maple Leafs gave me the chance to compare another aspect of hockey to soccer: local rivalries.

In Britain, games between two teams from the same city are often referred to as derbies (apologies to anyone who feels that they have just been patronised).  These fixtures are renowned for the passion that it brings out in local fans. 

Family and friends become divided, no matter how close they are to each other under normal circumstances.  All bets are off as everyone loses any sense of rational thought.  And more often than not, this animosity spills over onto the field between the two sets of players.

With a few notable exceptions (New York Yankees and Mets, Chicago Cubs and White Sox, etc) this doesn’t apply in quite the same way to North American sports.  This is partly due to the size of the country in comparison (meaning many fans don’t travel to away games), as well as the fact that, apart from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, not many cities have more than one team in the same sport.

This is not to say that there aren’t any teams that share a longstanding, bitter rivalry with other clubs.  The best examples that immediately spring to mind are the Yankees versus the Boston Red Sox, the Chicago Bears versus the Green Bay Packers and the Boston Celtics versus the Los Angeles Lakers, to name but a few.

And you can’t forget rivalries for teams within the same state or province (e.g. the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals, the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, etc).

In any event, I watched the game between Buffalo and Toronto, intrigued by what might transpire.  I was hooked from the start.

I appreciate that it can never compare to actually being at a game, but the heated atmosphere was evident, even on the television.  With the possible exception of games in Montreal, nowhere does Toronto enjoy a bigger road support than in Buffalo.

The fans were into the game right from the word go.  Players from both sides fed off the energy from the crowd, resulting in fast-paced, hard-hitting, end-to-end action. 

Another aspect of derby games in Britain is that you can throw the formbook out of the window.  It doesn’t matter which team is better, the other side will always raise their game for local affairs.

This definitely applied to the game in Buffalo, where you wouldn’t have thought that Toronto was 19 points worse off than the opposition.  In fact, overall, the Maple Leafs were the better team on the night.

Ultimately though, Toronto showed exactly why they are near the bottom of the Eastern conference.  Three early power play opportunities yielded nothing.  Buffalo on the other hand, scored goals on each of their first three power plays to take a commanding three-goal advantage.

However, in one final reminder of the comparisons to derby games, Toronto fought back as they tried to prove yet again that my theory regarding three-goal leads was redundant for the NHL.  Two goals had everyone (including me) on the edge of their seat right to the very last second.

In the end, thanks to the outstanding play of goaltender Ryan Miller, the Sabres hung on for a hard-earned victory, much to the delight of the home fans.

The last live NHL game I went to was Toronto’s 2008-09 season-opener at home to Montreal.  However, after last night’s game, I will be doing everything within my power to attend a game between Buffalo and Toronto in the very near future, (preferably at the HSBC Arena) in part to savour the atmosphere of a compelling rivalry.

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