Auston Matthews made franchise history, while the Leafs stayed ahead of the Boston Bruins in the playoff race thanks to a big two points earned without Frederik Andersen on Tuesday night.
Your game in ten:
1. That shorthanded goal by Zach Hyman last night – the game winner as it turned out — looked pretty familiar.
That was a pretty big goal in the game and in the season so far. The Leafs looked determined to cough up that 2-0 lead in the second period and early third.
2. Hyman’s college career is a fascinating story, as detailed by Dave Feschuk in this piece from early March. With 10 goals after last night, he’d only need a couple more to match – in his rookie NHL season – the goals total he put up in the first three years of college combined.
His work ethic and willingness to stick with it through some epic scoring droughts (“Hyman scored! It’s a miracle,” exclaimed Michigan head coach Red Berenson in 2013) eventually saw him break through late in his junior year. He gathered some offensive confidence, landed himself on a line with Dylan Larkin, and exploded offensively in his senior season. That earned the attention of then-Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock, who later endorsed the Hyman trade to Toronto, no doubt earmarking him for the sort of role he’s now in today.
Maybe he’s ultimately a fourth liner who is a high-end PKer, if properly slotted, but that’s still pretty amazing considering where he was at just a few short years ago. Good little find by the Leafs.
3. This wasn’t just a solid “backup start” by Curtis McElhinney; it was a good performance, period, at least over the final 40 minutes (he faced just three shots in the first, 24 in the final two periods). Not sure if it was the Leafs failing to take advantage of their power play opportunities that emboldened the Panthers after a drowsy start, or if the Leafs got complacent with the lead after a good first period, but they let off in the second and it easily could’ve been a 2-2 game after 40 minutes. The save on Jokinen’s redirect on the doorstep followed by the down-and-out paddle save on Reilly Smith was big, as was a point-blank save on Huberdeau that he got just enough of, and he made a couple of tough saves through traffic on the penalty kills.
It was with this type of situation in mind that the Leafs sought an upgrade at the backup position. McElhinney stepped up and delivered in the clutch.
4. Wendel Clark gave out some great quotes yesterday about Matthews breaking his rookie goal-scoring record.
Wendel Clark, on when he knew his #leafs rookie goal record was in danger: "The second period of the first game."
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) March 29, 2017
Wendel Clark on Auston Matthews and his "goal-scorer's touch" pic.twitter.com/XWKniJyZHN
— Kevin McGran (@kevin_mcgran) March 29, 2017
Even if Matthews isn’t “open,” the way he can locate/extricate pucks in traffic, and pull pucks in tight to his feet for a quick release, make it nearly impossible to get a handle on him. He’s blown shots by goalies this year and popped his fair share of water bottles, but he makes a killing getting shots off quickly below the hashmarks. Last night’s goal looked like countless others this year:
Leafs fans are still pinching themselves. What a season, and it’s only the beginning.
5. Thought this game was another testament to the Leafs’ quality of depth up front. Matthews’ record-setting goal deservedly dominated the headlines, but a lot of the credit for last night’s win should go to Hyman, Brown and Komarov.
Brown set up Komarov’s goal, had a couple of good looks himself, was a force on the penalty kill, and his stick in the slot on Jonathan Marchessault with under 30 seconds remaining may have saved a tying goal.
A two-point game for Leo Komarov gives him five points in his last four games to go along with 10 shots on goal over that span; he continues to elevate his game as the points grow in importance. His work without the puck here leads to his goal at the other end:
A good example there of how tight gaps with backpressure feed into the transition game.
6. This was a pretty good debut for Kasperi Kapanen, who played 11:38 (2:28 on the PK) and put two shots on goal. He’s even a little bit quicker this year if that’s possible, and he came out flying in the first period with some good forechecking pressure, a great outside drive, and a couple of diligent backchecks. We’ll need to watch more to see how close he is to making the jump full time, but that kind of speed is a skill to hang your hat on. It should give him every chance at a solid NHL career (every team is looking for break-away speed like that; the Hagelin and Grabner-level wheels). Last night, he instantly looked like the fastest player on one of the fastest teams in the league.
Brian Boyle on Kasperi Kapanen joining him and Matt Martin: "I was saying to Marty, 'finally – someone who can keep up with us.'"
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) March 29, 2017
The addition of Kapanen’s pace to that fourth line saw it return to the sort of possession numbers we saw before Soshnikov’s injury; Boyle finished a team-high 71% CF, with Kapanen and Martin not far behind.
7. Connor Carrick played just 12:35 — his second-lowest TOI of the season – as Babcock liked what he was getting from Roman Polak in his first game back. Like we’ve seen some in variation for the last couple of weeks, Polak was used in spot duty next to Rielly for some of the tougher matchup situations while Rielly-Carrick took on lesser lines for the most part.
The last time the Leafs played Florida, Rielly went minus-three and was at that time -20 in his previous 20 games. Since Babcock lightened the load in terms of the heavy matchup minutes, Rielly is a plus-seven in his last seven. He had a bunch of looks offensively last night – including a breakaway after a horrible turnover by Trocheck – but couldn’t seem to hit the net.
8. In his past few games, Polak’s been really active pinching down the walls and joining the cycle down low; last night, he led the team with 20 on-ice shot attempts and put three shots on goal (a season high).
In their eight minutes against the Barkov line, Gardiner and Zaitsev carried nearly 60% of the shot attempts, 69% of the scoring chances, and finished a plus-one.
9. With no goals and three points in his last eight, it’s officially Mitch Marner’s slowest stretch of the season (he had one other eight-game goal-scoring drought at the start of the year but picked up five assists during that one). There were some signs last night that he’s gripping the stick a little tight, particularly on the power play. He passed up a chance to shoot in the slot on the late first-period power play, he fumbled an empty-net chance and botched a 2v1 back-to-back on the 5-on-3, and he was generally fighting it all night long.
There is no real point to make here other than the old adage about getting chances. Turns out, he’s also sick:
Babcock said Marner's been dealing with an illness, which is why he hasn't had the same pop lately
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) March 29, 2017
Still think it’d be nice to see Babcock mix him in even just for one shift with Matthews on a night when Bozak and JVR aren’t up to much. That line combined for just one shot on goal last night, which has never happened before this season (the lowest combined shots total in a single game by JVR, Bozak and Marner was three previously).
10. A couple of things worth keeping in mind about the playoff race: It’s looking really good overall, but the Leafs aren’t going to win a tie-breaker against the Bruins due to their ROW difference. Among the current playoff teams in the East, the Leafs also have the worst away record at 16-14-8. This three-game road trip against Nashville, Detroit and Buffalo is one the Leafs have to collect points on, with the final four games looking so tough in terms of strength of opposition.