A dominant night offensively saw the Maple Leafs pile another loss onto the listless Vancouver Canucks with a decisive 6-3 victory.
As the game wound down, things escalated quickly with Vancouver players taking out their frustrations on the Leafs to the tune of numerous game misconducts, fighting majors and instigator minors for both sides.
On a slow but (hopefully) sure path to becoming a good team, the young Leafs will need to iron out their ability to take care of business against the weaker squads in the NHL. It’s a sure sign that times are a changin’ when that definition encompasses the Vancouver Canucks. They’re soon to be in bottom-feeder territory if they aren’t already; the Sedins are in the twilight of their marvelous hockey careers, there are no elite young guns waiting in the wings, and Jim Benning evokes nothing but misery and bewilderment from the Vancouver faithful.
The “trap” with facing said teams is that the players themselves are all aware of where each respective club stands in the NHL standings. As such, the possibility of starting slow or taking the odd shift off is a real one. But the upper echelon of the league doesn’t play down to their competition. This iteration of the Leafs appears to be blessed with youngsters with good heads on their shoulders and the right attitude in this respect. And they have a bench boss with the awareness to get out in front of any possibility of underestimating the Canucks:
“You might find this hard to believe, but I didn’t know they’d lost seven straight. What I do know is they had 64 shot attempts one game and 74 the other game. That’s how we get ready. We try to prepare for what they’re doing. Sometimes when you don’t score, everyone thinks you’re playing way worse than you are. I thought they had multiple, multiple opportunities in their last two games, so that’s the team we’re preparing for.”
Perhaps it was the words of their coach or the desire to spare the shoulders of their goalie from another Atlas-esque night, but the Leafs came out flying in the first period. It was an impressive showing that saw a speedy Toronto team take a commanding 17 to 7 lead in shots with a dominant 11 to 2 advantage in high danger shot attempts. With home ice advantage, Mike Babcock wasted no opportunity getting his “matchup center” out against the Sedins — Nazem Kadri missed just one shift against the twins in the first frame. In fact, the first goal came at 4-on-4 with Kadri decisively winning a faceoff against Henrik Sedin back to Morgan Rielly. Rielly found his partner Zaitsev on the right side, and Zaitsev took advantage of the extra ice to loop around the net before finding Nazem as Kadri eluded his coverage for a one-timer goal.
The goal seemed to further energize the Leafs and it was followed less than four minutes later by a turnover in the Vancouver zone to Leo Komarov. A pass to JVR made its way to Tyler Bozak as he snuck in on the right post to put the Leafs ahead by two. As the veteran scorers on the team, there certainly needs to be some consistent offensive production from Bozak and JVR, something Babcock has commented on himself. Tonight’s tilt was a good showing for them in that respect. Unfortunately, defensive aptitude has never been a strong point for this duo and shortly thereafter they were on the ice for Vancouver’s first of the night. Multiple miscues defensively culminated in Roman Polak losing Derek Dorsett in front to break the Canucks’ streak of futility via the most unexpected of scorers.
The second period was a more even affair, with the Leafs owning a 55% share of the possession but coming out slightly behind in high danger scoring attempts (4 to 5). A Toronto powerplay with five minutes remaining in the period saw Mitch Marner work some more of his magic, displaying the poise and awareness of a seasoned veteran to find Bozak in front of the net for the home team’s third tally of the night. This was undone in short order as a blown Jannik Hansen giveaway provoked ideas of a fast break going the other way. The puck had different ideas as it found its way to Henrik Sedin alone in front of Frederik Andersen with far too much time and space. Vancouver’s captain put it home to bring the Canucks back within one. Once again, the overall dominance of the Leafs was undone via a glaring defensive zone breakdown.
The third period appeared to feature the Leafs breaking things open methodically with consistent pressure. Toronto’s fourth goal saw Marner curl back in his zone before taking a pass from Bozak at full speed. Maner out-waited Miller and notched his fourth of the season by going far side post and in. Less than two minutes later, a solid forecheck by Ben Smith and subsequent pass out to Nikita Soshnikov saw the scrappy winger pot his first of the campaign.
Then, in one shift, the game fell apart. Rielly caught Hansen with a massive hit in the neutral zone. Kadri blindsided Daniel Sedin in the defensive zone (angles seem to suggest initial shoulder-on-shoulder contact, but this one’s certainly getting a review) seconds later, and an incensed Hansen came charging across to mete out punishment on #43. Oh, and at some point, the puck went in off of a Zaitsev deflection, presumably as Andersen was distracted by the antics erupting around him.
Things didn’t get much better from that point on. If you missed this one, do yourself a favour and watch the video (or just glance at the gamesheet) to bear witness to the onslaught of fights, instigations and general rambunctiousness that ensued. Somewhere amongst the madness Matthews and Nylander were finally rewarded with some points off of a trademark Nylander takeaway behind Miller that resulted in a Gardiner goal from the slot.
All told, the Leafs took care of business. Contrary to earlier in the season, they slammed their collective foot on the gas in the third period with a 9 to 0 advantage in high danger scoring chances. For the first time in years, it looks like Toronto will have multiple lines that are legitimate scoring threats. They appear to have an above-average goalie. As such, they will have a chance to make some meaningful movement upward in the standings. Putting away games like tonight against the weaker teams in the league is a step in the right direction.
Auston Matthews and William Nylander – Okay, so Matthews hasn’t scored in a few games. Deep breaths. The chances, ice time, and sublime skill set are all there. The goals will come. Tonight was another night of close calls for Matthews (including two posts). His line came out flying on the very first shift. They had an almost 80% possession share after the first twenty and finished the night with 57% CF. In the first period, Nylander danced Luca Sbisa before finding Matthews for a great chance out front. Then, he found Matthews again in the second. And again in the third. Rinse and repeat. The duo picked up a pair of assists on Jake Gardiner’s third-period goal but could have hit the scoresheet many times over.
Smith, Martin and Soshnikov – They had a bad showing last game in Buffalo without the benefit of home-ice advantage. Conversely, they did alright for themselves tonight when Babcock could control the matchups. Nikita Soshnikov continues to be a welcome addition to this line and was rewarded for his hard work with a goal.
Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev – The pairing that most armchair-GM Leafs fans wanted to see this offseason is now being used heavily by Babcock. An effortless zone entry early by Rielly and a beautiful pass to Connor Brown was matched in poise by Zaitsev’s work on the Kadri goal. Plays like these exemplify the potential of this duo to break out, enter the zone and control the play with ease. On the other hand, they were guilty of jumping the gun out of their zone on Henrik Sedin’s goal and still have kinks to iron out in their defensive game. That being said, they saw the lion share’s of defensive duties against the Twins and finished a respectable 50% on the night in CF%.
Marner, Van Riemsdyk, and Bozak – The Leafs’ best trio all night all carried possession for over 60% of ES play. The fact that the 19-year old Marner continues to be the motor on this line is really something. Marner looked dangerous immediately, walking out from behind the net around Sbisa early in the game for a good chance in slot. He displayed veteran patience later in the first period with a takeaway deep in the zone before angling himself for another great chance in the slot. Patience finally paid off in the second as he got the puck on the powerplay to the right of net. Many players, veteran or rookie, might have taken the shot with an open lane to the net. Instead, he waited just long enough before passing it to Bozak for a tap in. Right now Bozak and JVR are the happy beneficiaries of Marner’s creativity and speed. As the chemistry continues to develop and JVR emerges from his early season malaise, this could be a really exciting line to watch.
Frederik Andersen – Andersen won his third game in a row but he wasn’t tasked with carrying his team this time around. That being said, you can’t fault him for the goals tonight, and he warmed the cockles of most Leafs fans’ hearts by racing across the ice to bear hug Ryan Miller into submission as the line brawl late in the third broke out. This was Andersen’s first game below a 0.935 save percentage in five games as he’s soundly quelled the early rumblings of discontent in the hockey fishbowl that is Toronto.
Game In Six
Leafs 6 vs. Canucks 3 – Even Strength Shot Attempts
Leafs 6 vs. Canucks 3 – Shot Locations