Curtis McElhinney recorded his first shutout as a Maple Leaf as Toronto bounced back with a win in Carolina on Sunday night.
Your game in ten:
1. Entering Carolina on the second half of a back-to-back to play a rested if underperforming ‘Canes team was a big test. Toronto pulled through with a win to push themselves back over Florida and regain a playoff spot for now. Needless to say, the games are growing in importance as the teams around Toronto in the standings heat up and the mettle of this young squad will be tested in the coming months. Still, it’s important to maintain an objective big-picture view of this season with the knowledge that the rebuilding process requires patience when done right. The mere fact that this roster rife with rookies is competing for a playoff slot approaching game 60 is impressive. Gains beyond that in terms of possible playoff experience is just gravy.
2. What a showing by Curtis McElhinney in another Leafs game with 35-plus shots against. The vet backup continues to have a great season overall with both of the clubs he’s played for in 2016-17. He made a few great saves in the first and then really began laying brick in earnest in the second as the Hurricanes pushed for their first goal of the night; Natural Stat Trick credited the Canes with 15 home-plate chances in that middle frame. As Babcock has mentioned, McElhinney is a ‘battler’ and kept his team in it when the ice was tilted against them to help them secure a pair of important points.
3. Zach Hyman leads the NHL in TOI 4v5 and is tied for the league lead in shorthanded goals with three. He does this on a PK that’s been top 10 for most of the year. Lack of finishing skills aside, Hyman drew a penalty with his relentless penalty killing in the first and led numerous charges at the net as the night wore on. He finished a team-high (tied with Nylander) 70% CF and was on the ice for eight scoring chances for and two against.
4. Speaking of obvious stars, Auston Matthews had a superstar tour de force goal in the second period that you should watch immediately if you missed this game. After receiving a long pass by Gardiner at the opposing blueline, Matthews cut in towards the net with Phil Di Giuseppe draped all over him. As he reached the crease he was finally dragged down by Di Guiseppe but still managed to deftly slide the puck through Ward’s legs on his backhand as he was falling. Beautiful and significant as it pushed Toronto’s lead to two. Matthews is now on a 40-goal pace with 24 games to go.
5. Toronto’s first and last goals were eerily similar tallies by Connor Brown. Twice he drove the net with speed and received some sweet dishes by JVR from outside the circle which he redirected into the net. Brown had a great showing and was his usual industrious self all over the ice, providing some spark for his veteran linemates, who brought a more competitive effort to the table tonight.
6. Another good night for Josh Leivo. It’s part hockey sense and part luck but Leivo found himself in alone on Ward with great opportunities in every period tonight. There were no goals or points to show for it this time around, but his skillset and the tune that Babcock has been singing about him lately makes you think he’ll get an opportunity to stay in this lineup even when Marner is back from injury. He has worked particularly well with Kadri as his doggedness on the puck, “slippery shoulders” down low, and heavier game in the dirty areas of the ice meshes well with #43.
7. That being said, with both Leivo and Brown finding some success on the right wing of the lines they are currently on, what will happen when Mitch Marner returns from injury? Knowing Babcock, odds are that he’ll return to the status quo lines he’s used for a while now in the top nine. Will Leivo then push Soshnikov back out of the lineup? We’ve seen Leivo still bring a notable presence from the fourth line and it’s unlikely Babcock will sit Leivo with what he’s said about him recently. Soshnikov, meanwhile, is a welcome addition to the lineup and gives Babcock a capable secondary penalty killer (it’s being assumed here Babcock would never sit Matt Martin in the first year of his contract). It’s unfortunate none of the players in question play center as it awards Ben Smith his spot almost by default. It will be interesting to see what happens here.
8. Three points on the night for Jake Gardiner push his 82-game point pace to roughly 40 (and 10-plus goals). At certain points near the end of the first and in the second, the two teams were absolutely flying out there. Both squads are young and fast with similar styles of play and it’s in those moments where the elite skating of defenders like Gardiner and Rielly really shine. They’re certainly not perfect, but they are currently this franchise’s two best defensemen and very much part of the solution going forward. In addition to his goal, Gardiner’s one-arm breakout bump pass under pressure kickstarted the second Connor Brown goal and his hard wrap set up Matthews’ highlight-reel stunner. Gardiner was on for all four Leaf goals tonight, bringing him up to plus-19 on the season (team-best).
9. No blown leads by the young Buds tonight! They’re goal-famished of late, but Carolina did push hard after the two-goal lead in the second half of the second period. With some fortitude and the blessing of good goaltending the Leafs bent but did not break, and choked out the game well in the third. Natural Stat Trick credited the Hurricanes with two scoring chances in the final frame. They’ll need to use this as a stepping stone to tidier defensive efforts as that’s been an area of disarray since the All-Star Break.
10. After Matthews vs. Laine Pt. II at the ACC on Tuesday night, Toronto’s following five games feature the Rangers and Canadiens before they head out for their California road trip in San Jose, LA, and Anaheim. The Leafs have struggled against the West (8-8-6) this season, were blown out by LA earlier in the year, also lost to San Jose, and haven’t beat the Canadiens in their last 13 attempts. It’s not an easy stretch and it comes at a critical time in the schedule.
Shot Attempts Heat Map