The Maple Leafs saw their three-game winning streak snapped in emphatic fashion in Sunrise, Florida on Tuesday night.
Your game in ten:
1. 15 seconds in, the shitshow was off and running. On the 1-0 goal, Rielly and Zaitsev were both tied up with Jagr while Kadri got beat by Barkov at the back post off of the draw, but it’s also worth pointing the veteran move by Jagr on that opening goal. After tying Jagr up initially off the draw, Rielly’s intention was to release Jagr and close on Huberdeau. Jagr squeezed his armpit on Rielly’s forearm during the initial tie-up, holding him up. By the time Rielly extricated himself, it was too late.
The Leafs were doing a lot of standing around after that, with a clean look from the slot for Rielly Smith on the next shift. Brian Boyle’s brain fart — playing the puck five feet from the bench while changing on the fly — continued an awful start by the Leafs. If Huberdeau hit the net instead of the post on his point-blank chance on the early Florida power play, the blowout would’ve been underway much sooner.
2. The Leafs appeared to be settling in finally around the 7-8 minute mark of the first period starting with a good shift by Rielly, who defended Jagr well on an odd-man rush, joined the rush the other way, and tested Reimer from the high slot. That was followed by a rebound chance for Nylander and another shot by Nylander from high in the zone. The Matthews line and the fourth line came out next with competent shifts in succession. Marner set up Martin point blank in front of Reimer before drawing a penalty, and the Leafs had seemingly found their feet.
Kadri nearly scored early on that power play… and then the Zaitsev blooper happened, leading to the 2-0 shorthanded goal.
3. The Leafs bounced back quickly with a power play goal; Connor Brown intercepted a pass that prevented a shorthanded break the other way, Michael Matheson was without a stick as the last man back, and Nylander and Komarov were in alone for an easy 2v0 finish.
That was Nylander’s 22nd power play point of the season (11th in the NHL) – 19 of which are primary points (2nd in the NHL) – and also the end of an eight-game pointless streak for Komarov.
4. After Rielly and Zaitsev got in trouble in the corner following a defensive zone faceoff win by Tyler Bozak (subsequently, Bozak was soft on the puck on the halfwall after the Leafs recovered), the team needed a save from Frederik Andersen on Marchessault’s 3-1 goal. At that point, it stopped looking like the Leafs were going to fight their way out of a bad start. It now had the makings of the kind of total team letdown that leads to a blowout.
5. All told, a -4 night for Nikita Zaitsev, a -3 for Morgan Rielly, a -5 for Nazem Kadri, a -4 for Tyler Bozak, and a -4 for Leo Komarov.
Morgan Rielly now resides in the bottom ten in NHL plus-minus at -25 – Zaitsev’s not far behind at minus 21 – and the crazy thing about it is that Rielly was an even player at the start of 2017 through the first 35 games (Zaitsev was a -3).
That means that Rielly is a -25 in his last 27 games and a -20 in the 20 games since he returned from his high-ankle sprain. Needless to say, he’s not 100%.
Combine a banged-up Rielly still adjusting to a top pair role with Nikita Zaitsev experiencing his first NHL season – and first professional season longer than 57 games – in that same role, and what we’re seeing here down the stretch isn’t all that surprising.
6. One of very few bright spots in this game was Nikita Soshnikov breaking an 11-game pointless streak with his goal – a well-taken backhand finish after strong work from Martin and Boyle down low — as well as the overall play of the fourth line, which again finished around 70% in shot attempts for. Boyle, who collected his second assist as a Leaf on Soshnikov’s goal, is rolling along at a 57% CF since joining the team.
7. Soshnikov also had a look in the first period that he fired high on, and it got me thinking about how hard and wild his shot can be. If we take a leap and trust NHL.com’s missed shot data, Soshnikov misses 33.3% of his unblocked shot attempts, which is highest among the Leafs’ regular forwards.
Opportunity has been a big factor in his point production this season, needing to shoot more is also a part of it, and maybe so is hitting the net more often for greasy goals, rebounds, and second opportunities.
8. There is no set of pairings DJ Smith can assemble right now that solves the fundamental issues with the defensive core on the roster, but I’ll throw in my .02 on a short-term “solution:” for lack of other options, I’d keep Rielly – Zaitsev together and play Polak with Gardiner until Carrick is healthy. That includes Gardiner-Polak taking some defensive zone starts and shifts against top lines to split up the load that is breaking the backs of Rielly and Zaitsev.
There isn’t a single player on the Leafs who has played more than 200 minutes with Gardiner this season that doesn’t, a) have better possession numbers with Gardiner than without, b) have a CF% above 50% when sharing the ice with him. It may not be pretty, but having Polak box out, stop cycles, disrupt play and whack the puck to Gardiner — while looking for Rielly and Zaitsev to bounce back together under gentler usage — might be worth a shot.
9. The biggest challenge of the season awaits the Leafs tomorrow. Can they shake off their worst game of the year against a red-hot Lightning team in a huge four-point game? It’s pretty obvious which players need a bounce-back performance tomorrow night, while Mike Babcock and his staff need to have the team better prepared to start on time after what we witnessed in Florida and Carolina. Whether this debacle was related to the morning skate/off day or not, Babcock and his staff have to find the right formula to jumpstart the group.
10. It’s also worth keeping in mind how remarkable it is that this team is in a position to experience these crunch-time situations just one year after a 69-point season.
Shot Attempts Heat Map