In their last ever visit to the Joe Louis Arena, the Maple Leafs won a back-and-forth game to sweep the season series against the Red Wings and move into second in the Atlantic Division.
Your game in ten:
1. There have been many moments this season when fans assumed the Leafs were waking up and realizing they aren’t allowed to be good this fast. This was supposed be a transition season – a “promising young team that will learn from this experience,” type of situation – and a slump like the one that encompassed the California road trip felt like it was the cold hard reality of “learning how to win” coming home to roost. With each passing victory, it’s becoming clear this team is too talented and naïve to care about how this season was supposed to go.
Mike Babcock has pointed out before – and did again tonight — that the Leafs’ elite young players are the last ones he’s worried about down the stretch. They’ve been used to winning and being difference makers every step of the way growing up, and they’ve got no reference point when it comes to how the league is supposed to work for a team with as many as nine rookies in the lineup on a given night. You don’t know what you don’t know, and in a city with this hockey club’s recent history, that’s probably a good thing.
Currently on pace for 97 points coming off of 69 last year, the Leafs are well on their way to the biggest single-season turnaround in franchise history.
2. Frederik Andersen covering up for a multitude of sins defensively is also a huge part of it as far as the team’s overall confidence is concerned. In terms of structure – breakouts, neutral zone — this game was no work of art from the Leafs perspective. They played loosely for a good portion of the game, struggled to cope with an aggressive forecheck as Detroit chased the lead, and they didn’t generate enough cycle shifts in the offensive zone, especially as the game wore on. Prior to the Wings tying the game up, the Leafs really only had one offensive-zone shift of note in a 15-minute span, and it was a cycle by their fourth line (which was good again tonight, finishing with over 70% possession).
The Leafs were outshot 42-27 overall and gave up 31 home-plate chances by Natural Stat Trick’s count.
It was really impressive, though, how the Leafs just flipped the switch when the Wings (deservedly) tied the game late. A big pushback shift by Nazem Kadri’s line immediately after the goal led to a bad icing by Riley Sheahan, Jeff Blashill called a timeout, and Matthews nearly scored on a one-timer in the slot a little while later. On the Kadri’s line’s next shift, Brown’s strength on the puck led to Gardiner’s intelligent shot-pass to Kadri, and JVR — who joined the line on the fly — tucked in the rebound for his second goal in as many games.
They kept pushing for an insurance marker after that, leading to Matthews’ second of the game, and it turned out they needed it.
3. William Nylander definitely heard about this one when he (finally) got back to the bench.
Frans Nielsen was able to waltz through neutral ice and break the zone with speed because the Leafs’ high forward peeled off from the play and glided for half an ice width over to the bench.
Rielly can’t let himself get backed in and twisted around to the point where his back is facing the shooter while he screens the goalie, but that all starts with a lazy change.
The Leafs later returned the favour, punishing the Wings for a bad change on Mitch Marner’s goal.
4. To Wendel Clark’s point about Matthews being a “goal-scorer’s goal scorer:” On his first goal, it looked as though Matthews picked the short-side top corner on that at first glance, but he actually snuck it in between Jimmy Howard and the near post before Howard knew what happened. Sidney Crosby has rattled off a bunch of 35+ goal seasons shooting that way, beating goalies from angles he shouldn’t with a well-disguised release that is far too quick for goalies to react to. Matthews also has the 100mph fastball in his repertoire that Crosby doesn’t. It’s going to be a pleasure to watch the feats Matthews will accomplish over his career with a shot so dynamic.
Matthews just became only the eighth 18 or 19-year-old rookie to score 38 goals in NHL history:
It would take two goals in Matthews’ final five games for him to become the 19th player in NHL history — and the first in ten years — to score 40 as a rookie. That feat has been accomplished just once since Teemu Selanne’s 76-goal and Eric Lindros’ 41-goal seasons in 1992-93, when Alex Ovechkin scored 52 in 2005-06.
He’d be the first 18/19-year-old rookie to score 40 goals since Lindros in 1993 (Ovechkin was 20 as a rookie on account of the ’04-05 lockout). Only five 18/19-year-old rookies have scored 40 or more in NHL history: Lindros, Lemieux, Gretzky, Turgeon, Hawerchuk.
Matthews is also one goal way from breaking the single-season record for goals by an American-born rookie. I’m running out of superlatives to describe what we’re seeing here.
5. Babcock is in Toronto now but the faceoff pick play remains a staple in Detroit, and it worked to good effect on the Nick Jensen 3-2 goal (Tomas Tatar on Zach Hyman):
The Red Wings bossed the Leafs around on faceoffs all game, winning 60% on the night.
6. The CBC broadcast mentioned that Zetterberg and Matthews have matched up throughout the season series, resulting in five of the Red Wings’ six goals over the previous three games. It was a shot-for-shot, high-event matchup tonight — Matthews finished the game with a 13-12 edge in shot attempts in 12 minutes head-to-head against Zetterberg, the shots were 10-10 in that time, and the goal count was 2-2.
The rookies on that line got a lesson from Zetterberg and his group on the 3-3 tally. The Wings captain was afforded too much time and space to walk out around the net and pick out an unattended Niklas Kronwall with a perfect saucer pass to the back post, with Matthews and Nylander caught looking.
Babcock threw Brian Boyle out with Matthews and Hyman once the Leafs regained the lead at 4-3, resulting in Matthews’ eventual game-winning goal a few minutes later — with Zetterberg on the ice.
7. Shouldn’t need to be said, but Matthews has all but put to bed any debate about the destination of the 2017 Calder Trophy. Voters will take note of the fact that Matthews is leading the upstart Leafs to the playoffs, and he’s starting to put some distance between him and Laine production-wise in the last 10 games as well:
Last 10 games:
Patrik Laine – two goals, three points
Auston Matthews – seven goals, 11 points
It’s over. pic.twitter.com/h3CbIsfEKR
— Alec Brownscombe (@MapleLeafsHS) April 2, 2017
Seven goals in his last ten for Matthews including back-to-back game-winners.
8. After turning the corner in Nashville coming off of his illness, Mitch Marner looked fully himself in this game. He was on and around the puck a lot, dogged in his puck pursuit without it, buried nicely on his goal (breaking a nine-game goals slump), and he pulled off a silly no-look spin-o-rama pass to the far point in the second period.
William Nylander’s goal — 1:20 after Marner’s — looked awfully familiar, didn’t it?
That was a special 12 minutes in the second period, featuring beautiful goals from each of the Leafs’ holy trinity of rookies in succession.
9. Kasperi Kapanen is fast.
I’ve got no other analysis here other than to say there were two false starts on the draw (one before the video starts) that clearly revealed Kapanen’s intentions, Green was ready for it, and Kapanen still won the race. Good recovery by Green, though.
10. The Leafs gave Mike Babcock the ultimate sendoff at the Joe by completing a season sweep of his former team, and he left the bench muttering under his breath about the fourth goal and the Leafs’ dodgy finish to the game. Just the way it should be.
Onto the next one.