The Toronto Maple Leafs won their second consecutive preseason game with a 3-2 overtime victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Auston Matthews Debut Night.
This was certainly preseason hockey from a structure and puck management standpoint – which had Mike Babcock sounding less-than-pleased in his post-game press conference — but it was more enjoyable than the usual exhibition fare. Skilled, young talent receiving lots of powerplay time, making fun plays and scary mistakes, all capped off by three-on-three overtime.
The Leafs were way too fine on the powerplay and a little too focused on style over substance in general, but the elevated skill level on display with Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev in the mix was clear for all to see.
William Nylander – If you don’t think Babcock is going to iron some bad habits out of Willy by doling out a hard lesson or two this season, start preparing yourself now. But the fit next to Matthews had its moments – there is too much talent and hockey sense between them for it not to – with some give and go’s and high-skill interplay. He showed his vision and patience with the puck finding Rielly trailing rather than forcing a pass into Matthews on Rielly’s goal. He put four shots on goal and must have fired five-plus over the net.
Auston Matthews – Any Leaf fan had to be pinching him/herself watching Matthews hit the ACC ice in a Leaf jersey for the first time. The crowd buzzed in anticipation whenever he gained a head of steam with the puck. The highlight moments were the pivot out of the corner before ripping one off the bar, and the dangle through the tripod of Mikhail Sergachev, fouling up his feet before taking him wide and drawing a penalty call. He was just 17% on the draw (1 for 6 – none taken in the defensive zone), which may be the area of his game with the steepest learning curve this season.
Mitch Marner – A line with Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk should be a good fit for the rookie. Bozak has plenty of experience playing with and complementing high-end skill over the past five years, and Bozak and JVR have thousands of minutes logged together. No shots on goal for Marner tonight, but he was finding his linemates well. He cleverly opens his hips and creates passing lanes for his partners; rather than giving a teammate his back and a backhand as a target — with pressure on him — he’ll trim some speed off, pivot, skate backwards or go heel-to-heel, and open up to a forehand. He produced some dazzling plays and a few turnovers as well, but he was always on his horse getting back.
Connor Brown – The following should be prefaced with the statement that he’s not playing poorly by any means. After finishing the season with the team and looking NHL-ready, I’d bet Connor Brown was told in his exit interview that he had a spot there for him if he came to camp and showed his stuff. I’m not sure he’s quite done that yet. He’s bulked up to around 190 pounds, which sounds good, but it may not be his sweet spot. We’ve yet to see the same first three-step explosiveness getting to loose pucks and winning 50-50 battles. He also played with Martin and Gauthier tonight, which has to be kept in mind. There is more opportunity still to come with better linemates as the Leafs have four more preseason games to play over the next six days.
Zach Hyman – Assisted on the beautiful Rielly goal after chipping the puck out on the halfwall. He looked the part of a workhorse who complemented Matthews and Nylander well as a puck retriever, dogged forechecker and net-front guy. On a team that Babcock called “light and too much on the outside” tonight, you can’t picture Babcock starting the season without him in his lineup.
Morgan Rielly – He was going to take another step this year regardless, but the World Cup was a launching pad for his season. Brimming with confidence, he now has talent around him that can get him the puck when he sees the green light and hits the gas pedal (see Nylander spotting him as the trailer and finding him for the 2-1 goal). A goal, four shots on net, and a team-leading 25 minutes of ice time. All the ingredients are there for Rielly to reach new heights in 2016-17.
Roman Polak – You would attribute it to rust, but he’s had the World Cup to shed some of it. The puck was a grenade on his stick all game. You don’t judge players on their first preseason game of the year, and you have to keep in mind that you need 8 or 9 NHL defencemen on the depth chart for an 82-game schedule. But you can’t help but look ahead and wonder if Babcock would actually healthy scratch him in order to accommodate Carrick or Corrado in the lineup.
Milan Michalek – Pretty good tune-up game from him, although he is coming in hot off a two-goal performance in the World Cup of Hockey. He turned a couple of defenders inside out, generated some chances, and looked refreshed compared to the end of last season. It was a long 2015-16 for Michalek after he was hurt early on last season, so the offseason helped. How his pace and his body hold up as the real games get going and the season progresses is the big question mark, but there were clear signs of why he was a legitimate top six talent in his prime.
Nikita Zaitsev – The World Cup of Hockey was a case of perfect timing and circumstance for Zaitsev – he got to play big minutes against top competition on the North American ice surface before the NHL season kicks off. We saw many of the same things tonight that we did in the WCOH in terms of the poise, mobility, the puck movement, the willingness and intelligence to jump up in the play at the right time — and the big right-handed shot. Breaking the duck on his first (unofficial) goal as a Leaf right away certainly won’t hurt the confidence level. We also saw more evidence of one less-talked attribute – he doesn’t shy away from physical contact and will hold his own in front of his goalie. Good debut.
Garret Sparks – The style profile is Reimer-esque in that he’s not the prettiest goaltender to watch but he is usually in good position to make the first save before entering ugly scramble mode on second and third efforts. 17 saves on 18 shots was far more action than Enroth saw, who again faced only eight shots in his half-game. Sparks ended last season on a real down note, between the tough run with the big club and the AHL playoffs, so hopefully he can take some confidence away from tonight.
Game In Six
Toronto Maple Leafs vs Montreal Canadiens Boxscore - Oct. 2nd