The Toronto Maple Leafs were swept on their California road trip after a 5-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Friday night.
Now on the outside looking in on a wildcard position (one point behind the Islanders, who have a game in hand), the Leafs‘ playoff probability has dipped to 42.6% — their lowest odds since before Christmas.
Your game in ten:
1. He got sucked in as the F3 on Rickard Rakell’s first goal, turned the puck over inside his own blue line on the Jakob Silfverberg goal, and lost his man at the back post for Rakell’s second of the night. Throw in his penalty that led to Los Angeles’ 2-1 goal early in the third on Thursday, and Mitch Marner has contributed to four goals against in the last two games. Those are the type of mistakes and teachable moments the Leafs can easily tolerate, though. Rookies making mistakes and learning from them? That’s a big part of what this year is about. Especially when it’s a special young talent who is hyper-competitive and who clearly cares a heck of a lot (Marner looked beside himself on the bench after his turnover on the Silfverberg goal). Marner hasn’t felt that low very often throughout his hockey career, I’m going to bet. Babcock sat him down for a few shifts after the Silfverberg goal. It’s good for him.
2. While we’re on the topic, after another penalty last night, Marner is now up to 17 minor penalties this season and he’s taken quite a few more than he’s drawn. Typically, they’re stick penalties taken while pursuing the puck carrier. It comes from the right place – his line with JVR and Bozak would play without the puck most of the night if it wasn’t for Marner’s competitiveness and desire to get it back – but it’s something he’ll need to clean up.
3. Can’t leave a section about Marner without mentioning the powerplay assist. Where most players take the obvious play by trying to get the puck through to Kadri (Cam Fowler saw Kadri and was anticipating it), Marner toe drags, sucks a couple of defenders in while skating backwards with the puck on his stick, and puts it on Bozak’s tape in the slot. That you can’t teach.
4. You don’t have to like every little decision a coach makes on a game-to-game basis. Even if I don’t agree, I typically see the logic in most of what Mike Babcock does. Scratching Josh Leivo is an exception.
It is bothersome on a couple of levels: 1) The Leafs are a better team with him in the lineup; 2) It sends a pretty awful message.
Leivo bided his time for over half a season on the sidelines and by all accounts worked very hard in practice (it showed in his skating when he got his chance). He entered the lineup on the fourth line playing alongside Ben Smith and Matt Martin with little to no game reps under his belt and did a pretty good job of making the most of those eight or nine minutes. Hungry and motivated, he was effective retrieving/recovering pucks on the forecheck and showed his skill down low.
An injury then occurred higher in the lineup and he took full advantage of an opportunity to play on Komarov and Kadri’s line – the sort of opportunity Babcock would talk about when asked about Leivo or Corrado, in terms of the player needing to be patient and ready when called on. Babcock went as far as to say that trio was “dominant” in his review of the line’s performance against Winnipeg. Overall, Leivo has put up nine points and 21 shots on goal in his last eight games and has posted a 56.4 CF% over his 12 games this season (small sample size, but that’s tops on the team).
After Mitch Marner came back, Leivo played on the fourth line at even strength along with some powerplay time against the Sharks. He picked up a nice primary assist on Auston Matthews’ PP goal in that game.
He did everything the coach asked of him, and now he’s been scratched for two consecutive games.
5. I recognize that there are no easy answers here. The Leafs fourth line of Brian Boyle, Nikita Soshnikov and Matt Martin had a good game last night and was deservedly rewarded with more ice time. Matt Martin received 11:36 in time on ice, his second-highest total of the season. Soshnikov played 11:14 – the most he’s played in a month – and was on the ice for 11 shots for and zero against. The line finished tops of the team in possession, with Soshnikov leading the way at 81% CF.
Leivo doesn’t deserve to sit and Soshnikov doesn’t deserve to sit. Martin hasn’t been a drag on the line, to be fair, but it’s definitely the elephant in the room here. A Soshnikov, Boyle and Leivo line has the makings of one of the best fourth lines in the league.
6. The Leafs’ already paltry defensive depth has been stretched thin with the loss of Connor Carrick – Alexey Marchenko really struggled on this road trip in a role that is clearly above his head – and it seems obvious now that Morgan Rielly is playing below 100%. He looked to have sustained another stinger in his injured ankle when a Ducks player fell on him behind the net last night. He’s getting beat out of the corner/off the wall with regularity, he’s often rushing in straight lines and getting angled off into dead ends, and overall he doesn’t look like himself.
7. Needless to say, the Leafs just don’t have the depth to cope with an injury to their #4 in Carrick (who is a bottom-pair guy on a good blue line in the first place) and to have their de facto number-one guy in Rielly playing at about 70%. Meanwhile, Jake Gardiner seemed to forget his frontal lobe back in Toronto during this trip.
8. If there is one thing to like about the Leafs blue line in the past couple of games it is the play of Nikita Zaitsev. Zaitsev has gone from playing 40-50 game seasons in the KHL to playing big minutes in a tough role in the world’s best league (one that has terrible ideas about how the schedule should work). There was reason to be concerned for a while there about how Zaitsev was going to hold up under the demands of his role and the schedule, especially as the Rielly and Zaitsev pairing started to really struggle in the past month. He’s had a good couple of games here next to Gardiner, scoring a goal in LA and assisting on Hyman’s in Anaheim, and finishing as a plus two games in a row after a long string of minuses (he was a -11 in his previous seven games).
His shift on the powerplay where he hustled east-west to keep the puck in three separate times was something else, and he finished top of the blue line in CF% (62%), with good results against both the Kesler and Getzlaf lines.
9. The Leafs have now given up 35+ shots in seven of their last nine and have gone 2-4-3 over that stretch. Their two wins have come over two non-playoff teams in Winnipeg and Carolina, while six of the seven losses have come against playoff teams (Rangers, Sharks, Ducks, Canadiens, Blue Jackets, Senators). They’ve given up 29 goals over those nine games (3.2/game), with 23 goals against over the six games against playoff teams (3.8/game). The good news? The Leafs’ next five games are against non-playoff opponents.
10. One of Babcock’s more eye-opening quotes this year was his line about being more worried about the veterans on the team – the players who have been a part of losing team after losing team in Toronto and experienced multiple catastrophic collapses down the stretch – than he is about how the rookies will deal with the pressure of a playoff push. It was a brutally honest answer and a clear message sent. The recent play of Gardiner, JVR, Bozak and Rielly (who should be afforded some leeway with his injury) haven’t alleviated those concerns. The Leafs held the lead in all three games in California. While they got dominated in San Jose and didn’t have any business leading in the first place, they were in a position to collect an undeserved point against a good team on the road — as playoff teams need to be able to do — with under a minute and a half left in the game. With a little more resolve, the Leafs could’ve walked away with four or five points, feeling pretty good about their playoff odds after a tough road trip.
There are plenty of games left to change the narrative. It is going to be fascinating to watch who steps up and who falters down the stretch, especially with the adversity now ramping up in a big way. In the words of Mike Babcock, “we’re going watch the games just like the rest of you.”