The Toronto Maple Leafs put on their worst showing of the preseason in an ugly 6-1 drubbing at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night.
There was only one highlight from the Leaf perspective in this game, but it was a beautiful one: Auston Matthews’ first goal as a Leaf (unofficially, it being preseason) on a wicked release past the best goaltender in the world in Carey Price, who did the “lift your shoulders and pray” technique on a shot he didn’t see at all before it was in the back of his net.
Matthews beats Price with a great wrist shot on the PP. 2-1 pic.twitter.com/JDmGU3xsIQ
— Marc Dumont (@MarcPDumont) October 7, 2016
Outside of their one highlight on the powerplay, the Leafs played preseason hockey against a real NHL lineup tonight. The game was over early due to a combination of poor goaltending, bad reads/poorly-timed pinches by Leafs defencemen, and rampant missed assignments in the defensive zone.
We’ll start with Frederik Andersen, who will want a number of the goals back, particularly goals #2 (Michael McCarron’s effort from the top of the circle off a solo rush that beat him clean) and #4 (more traffic than goal two, but he was beaten clean on a low point shot). He shook off the second goal well, subsequently making three or four great saves on high-danger scoring chances for the Habs. He was able to keep the game alive as a contest temporarily despite a few odd-man rushes and cross-crease opportunities, but the night unravelled for him in the second period.
There are obviously some adjustments underway for Andersen — in addition to the injury layoff, he’s a part of a new system and a new team, one that is likely to be far less effective at shot suppression than the Anaheim Ducks were last season. There are going to be some nights like this one from the defensive standpoint this year. The biggest test will be how Andersen responds to this kind of adversity once the games matter. The Leafs made a big bet on the big Dane having the right stuff mentally to play behind a young team with some growing pains ahead of them.
Keeping in mind that everything looks worse than it actually is in losses like this — and any observation needs to be prefaced by the two words it’s preseason — but the mix on the blueline didn’t seem right (Marincin – Rielly, Gardiner – Carrick, Hunwick – Zaitsev). Matt Hunwick, goals aside, has had a rough preseason in terms of missed assignments and bad pinches. There were a couple of glaring examples again tonight; among them — he was beaten badly by Andrew Shaw on Shaw’s second goal; he was weak on the puck down low before losing the race to the front of the net.
The idea of pairing Zaitsev with a veteran NHLer is sound on paper, but the problem is the Leafs don’t have a veteran of Dion Phaneuf’s ilk for the role anymore. Only Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick fit the description of a veteran defenceman on the team. The Rielly – Zaitsev pairing, which has the added benefit of switching Rielly over to his strong side, seems like the best way forward, based on what we’ve seen in preseason and what we know of Hunwick’s performance last season. We know Babcock has the Hunwick – Zaitsev pairing penciled in on his whiteboard; however, it’s difficult to picture that combination working out as designed unless they’re getting bottom pairing usage against third and fourth lines. Zaitsev looks ready to start the season in a top-four role.
A few thoughts on a few players on the bubble:
– Connor Brown had one of his better showings of preseason, showing more jump than in games previous. While he only played 11:49 total, Babcock eventually moved him up the lineup onto Nazem Kadri’s wing later in the game. He should get into one more game before the preseason is through, and he’ll need to make the most of it — he’s waiver exempt and he hasn’t exactly given the Leafs no choice but to save a spot for him in the opening day lineup.
– Kerby Rychel came out with some jump on his first shift, looking to make an impression on a line with Nylander and Hyman, but he did his cause no favours on the first Montreal goal. He committed to puck chasing on the half wall, lost the race, and didn’t ‘cut off the top’, leaving his pointman wide open to take a step in and unwind. That led to the rebound off the end boards that Andrew Shaw tucked away for the 1-0 tally. It was a, “he needs some time learning the system in the AHL” moment. Rychel didn’t see much ice afterwards (a team-low 9:16 TOI).
– The best Leaf, and it wasn’t close in my view, was Zach Hyman, who has been Mr. Reliable for Mike Babcock. A team that hasn’t worked “inside the dots” enough offensively can hardly afford to go without Hyman’s workmanlike efforts and fearlessness in traffic — he has repeatedly paid the price to drive the net in the past few games. Not only will Hyman be in the lineup, he may have earned himself a top-nine spot on opening night.
One final note: It’s not a typo below. Matt Martin was credited with 15 hits tonight.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs Montreal Canadiens - Boxscore