Chad Johnson and the Calgary Flames shut the door on the Leafs Wednesday night, riding a (very) early lead and some superb goaltending to a 3-0 victory.
The second night of a back-to-back on the road. Playing against a team desperate to turn things around as they return home after a long road trip. A team that’s sporting an unusually dismal home record. Surely the Leafs would come out firing, eager to push the pace before their tired legs caught up to them, right? Not quite. It was actually the exact opposite as the Leafs seemingly fell victim to a trap game in Calgary.
It’s possible the Leafs‘ preparation was lacking, perhaps feeling a little too satisfied with themselves coming off of consecutive wins over Edmonton and Washington (that was Mike Babcock’s explanation after the game). Whatever the case, some quick defensive breakdowns and shaky goaltending spotted the Flames a 2-0 lead that they never relinquished.
If you went to grab a beer during the anthem you probably missed Calgary’s first two markers. Just 19 seconds into the game, Freddie “the Other” Hamilton found an empty spot in coverage away from Nazem Kadri to whip one home past Jhonas Enroth. Things didn’t get much better for Toronto’s backup in his quest for his first win of the season as the Flames pushed their lead to 2-0 before 30 seconds had run off the clock. This one could be pinned a bit more squarely on Enroth as he kicked out a generous rebound on a Sean Monahan shot right to a wide-open Kris Versteeg.
The shellshocked Leafs almost fell behind by three as a Monahan shot was the third to beat Enroth cleanly in the first two minutes but it did not make it by the post.
Toronto pushed back for the duration of the period but Calgary was still able to pot their third of the frame off the stick of Matt Stajan as the scoresheet saw its second mediocre ex-Leaf make his mark. This one was the result of a joint gaffe by Auston Matthews and Jake Gardiner, with neither picking up Stajan as he headed towards the net.
To their credit, it didn’t seem to dissuade the Leafs rookies, with Mitch Marner looking especially dangerous just minutes later in a charge up the ice that yielded a good offensive shift for the Leafs. The period culminated in a dangerous Toronto powerplay that has consistently looked threatening in the first quarter of the season. Having not one but two legitimately dangerous man-advantage units is one of the club’s biggest improvements thus far over last season.
Much was made about Nylander’s semi-stint on the fourth line (it is Toronto after all) but it was just as much of a non-story as you would expect. By the second period, Nylander was seeing most of his shifts on Matthews’ wing or elsewhere, and to good effect. Nylander had a number of dangerous rushes and connections with Matthews in the second and owned a team-high 68.75 CF% going into the third. Similar to some of Marner’s rushes, Nylander sliced through the opposition with ease on a few occasions, directly facilitating the offensive chances that followed.
Unfortunately for the Leafs, Chad Johnson has put his Flames squad on his back recently and he stood tall against Toronto’s onslaught. The second period also ended with another dangerous-looking Leafs powerplay, this time with the Marner unit coming close. A chance for Nikita Soshnikov in front was swallowed by the pads of Johnson after a long stretch of pressure by the Leafs that went for naught.
The third period saw the Leafs continue to apply pressure. They had an over 70% share of the scoring chances in the frame with a decisive six to one advantage in high danger scoring chances. The best chance of the period belonged to Marner, who was sprung on a breakaway only to be denied once again by Johnson. A few more offensive zone flurries by the Leafs met a similar fate as the clock wound down. Toronto finished the night with a 39-29 advantage in shots and the knowledge that tonight’s game was decided by goaltending as much as anything.
All told, the Leafs didn’t start on time and got shut out by a struggling team devoid of its star forward. If you were simply following the score nobody would blame you for quickly switching to the TFC or Raptors game. But, if you were dedicated enough to sit through all 60 minutes you were at least rewarded with a Toronto team that didn’t roll over and played better than the 3-0 scoreline indicated.
If the scoreboard was the same after one period in recent seasons, you might have switched the channel and probably not missed a thing, outside of a few pseudo-dangerous one-and-done rushes by the JVR-Bozak-Kessel line and the occasional lone-ranger attempt by Kadri.
Teams used to be able to clog the neutral zone against the Leafs with the lead and be fairly certain nobody would gain the zone with much regularity. But with Nylander, Marner, and Matthews joining the likes of Rielly, Gardiner, and Kadri — along with a supporting cast that includes fast, smart players like Brown, Soshnikov, Hyman and Komarov, who will chip it in but hunt it down tirelessly — the Leafs aren’t a team anybody should be sleeping on anymore, or they’ll need a performance as good as Chad Johnson’s was tonight to hang onto the lead.
Enroth’s play is going to receive a lot of the attention in the post-game takes. On a lot of fronts, the Swedish goaltender was heralded as a good signing by Leafs management in the offseason. With a proven record of solid play in recent years, Enroth was brought in to fill a short term role as a backup who could bear an increased workload if needed. And while Enroth is likely still capable of this based on what we know of his career to date, he hasn’t shown it thus far. With Karri Ramo hanging around Toronto, there is the real possibility that he may lose his job if his performance does not improve. He can only really be faulted on the second goal, but going winless this far into the season is not generating any goodwill with the coaching staff. The Leafs don’t need a spectacular backup with the way Andersen is playing, but like any team, they need one that is reliable enough to keep a game within reach even with a slow start from the team in front of him.
A couple of positives for the Leafs: William Nylander was absolutely flying. The best player on the ice for Toronto, he finished second only to Ben Smith (wait, what?) in terms of possession share on the night. Watching him tear effortlessly through the middle of the ice is a good indication that he will be just fine as a full-time center when and if the time comes. That being said, he was naturally the most dangerous when riding shotgun with Matthews. He had a couple of misses on the second powerplay, but if he keeps playing like this the points will be coming in bunches. A lot has been made of Nylander playing on the fourth line, but Babcock didn’t hesitate when it was clear he was ‘going’ early, handing him a team-leading 19:30 in ice time.
Mitch Marner, meanwhile, continues to create a boatload of chances game in and game out.
All Situations Shot Attempts