The Maple Leafs got on the board with their first win of the season in a resounding win against a struggling Columbus team.
The opponent: a winless team featuring a goalie that has publicly stated he has “no confidence.” Sadly, Leafs fans have seen this storyline end poorly far too many times in recent years to assume Toronto would be able to take advantage of the Blue Jackets obvious disarray.
Indeed, it seemed the Leafs were on their way to curing yet another opponent’s woes by giving up the first goal of the game on just the second shot. Boone Jenner tipped in an Atkinson point shot with Gardiner standing futilely beside him. It’s hard to fault Jake too much on this one. It was a skilled deflection by a burly power forward. Yet Babcock has been instructing his blueliners to keep their sticks on the ice when defending. This was a perfect example of a situation where a firmer stick by a more attentive Gardiner could have made the difference.
Despite the potential for an early goal to deflate the confidence of this squad, they responded admirably. The next shift ended in a Van Riemsdyk rush to the net. This was followed by an offensive zone faceoff win and a dangerous-looking Rielly point shot. Babcock has stressed that this team needs to be consistent in their effort and attention to systemic details, even in the face of adversity. Nothing was more symptomatic of the 2014-15 team’s attitude than their tendency to wilt when things were not going their way. This was often on display within individual games and on a macro level with their dismal play during the final months of this season. The Leafs would go on to outshoot the Blue Jackets over the duration of the first period, emphatically overcoming a sluggish start.
One of last year’s Leafs that never succumbed to the aforementioned wilting was Daniel Winnik. A tireless worker, Winnik singlehandedly facilitated Toronto’s tying marker early in the second. The industrious winger retrieved the puck on the forecheck and found Jake Gardiner at the point. A well-aimed slapshot later the Leafs were firmly in the driver’s seat. Van Riemsdyk put the Leafs ahead 2-1 later in the period with a laser through a mess of bodies from well out.
Another noticeable coaching-related difference has been reflected in the team’s vastly improved breakouts. One such breakout yielded a chance for Kadri in the first. Another such breakout (followed by a fortunate Blue Jacket turnover) resulted in Nazem pushing Toronto’s lead to 3-1. Thankfully, it seems like we’ve seen the last of Toronto forwards drifting miles from their beleaguered defensemen, hoping for the low percentage breakout pass.
With a Foligno marker to close out the second, Hartnell’s powerplay goal early in the third tied it back up at 3-3. In a strong game for the Leafs overall, an area for improvement lay in the passiveness of their penalty kill. It is obviously still a work in progress so there’s no firm judgement to be made here – but they sat back on a few occasions, giving Columbus a number of opportunities to score. Regardless, Toronto kept the pressure on, culminating in a Lupul goal to restore the lead. Lupul played with Winnik and Spaling tonight, giving two defensive stalwarts some offensive pop in an interesting combination that bears watching in coming games.
When things are going as badly as they are for the Columbus Blue Jackets, you almost feel bad when Leo Komarov saunters through a mess of a line change along the boards to dribble a squeaker through Sergei Bobrovsky. Almost. Uncle Leo would seal the win for the Leafs with an empty netter, setting the stage for Toronto’s first tilt with Kessel in a Penguins uniform on Saturday. The effects of Mike Babcock and the new coaching staff are already being reflected in improved breakouts, possession and consistency of effort. It may be tough to secure a win against a hungry Penguins team in the second half of a back-to-back. Regardless, adhering to these coaching-instilled principles will lay the foundation for a stronger and more structurally sound developing team going forward.
Nazem Kadri – Kadri fired another seven shots on tonight to bring his total to a whopping 21 in five games. This is not a sustainable pace. Yet, as a long-established possession monster, it would not be surprising to see this finally reflected in Kadri’s shot totals in a system that better caters to sustained possession. This, in conjunction with Nazem’s natural growth as a player, should lead to improved numbers across the board for this team’s (current) number one center.
Matt Hunwick – Hunwick continues to be a revelation. Hunwick is a fast, smart defender that has been heralded as underrated by those aware of his possession statistics. It didn’t take long for Mike Babcock to recognize this as well, as he spoke glowingly of Hunwick during training camp. More importantly, this has carried over to Hunwick’s ice time as he clocked in tonight at 23:38, the highest total for the Leafs. However, Hunwick is 30 and on a two-year contract at a very affordable rate. Do the Leafs continue to feed Hunwick minutes, advertising his utility and effectiveness, only to trade him at the deadline? He would be a welcome commodity on many teams. The extra year of contract and low cap hit could make him even more desirable to a team looking to supplement for the playoffs without dishing assets for a pure rental. It will certainly make for an interesting situation come trade deadline.
Morgan Rielly – The second highest on the team tonight in ice time was Morgan Rielly, who continues to have a strong season. Rielly has consistently been one of the best players on the team on a nightly basis and is truly a pleasure to watch in what could be a season short on bright spots.
Leo Komarov – Komarov got a chance with the top line tonight. Babcock put him there while stating that Leo’s role was to retrieve the puck. Komarov did that and then some tonight, potting a couple goals (easy or not) with his usual brand of rowdiness. Komarov immediately struck many as a player that Babcock would like due to his tenacity, defensive aptitude and endless motor. Thus, his deployment and ice time in the early games was a bit surprising. A game like this will certainly help ensure he becomes a fixture as a complementary piece higher up in the lineup.
Daniel Winnik – There is a surplus of good things to say about Winnik. By now, most diehard followers of the team know what he brings. Three assists on the night is not terribly surprising, as Winnik has produced at a first line level in terms of assists/minute over the last few seasons. Like Hunwick, he is an attractive asset on a two-year deal. Once again, it will be up to the Leafs whether they choose to keep a good player around as a role model and to improve their club in the short-term versus capitalizing on said player’s value around the league.
Dion Phaneuf – Dion had another solid game. His confidence offensively is as good as we have seen it in a while. He had a fantastic moment of holding the blue line that displayed the skills that once had him as a premier offensive defenseman in the NHL. Whether he can continue to rejuvenate his career under Babcok remains to be seen, but it has been a good start for the oft-maligned captain.
Shot Location Chart
All Situations Possession Chart
Leafs Player Possession Stats – Leafs 6 vs. Blue Jackets 3
|Name||Position||Corsi For||Corsi Against||Corsi||Corsi For%||Zone Start%|
|JAMES VAN RIEMSDYK||L||20||8||12||71.43%||90.91%|
Leafs Player Stats – Leafs 6 vs. Blue Jackets 3
|PLAYER||POS||G||A||P||+/-||PIM||S||HITS||BKS||FO%||PP TOI||SH TOI||TOI|
|J. van Riemsdyk||L||1||0||1||2||0||2||0||0||-||0:45||0:00||15:13|