Full value for their 6-3 defeat, the Maple Leafs got a wake-up call in Ottawa on Saturday night.

“That team was almost in the Stanley Cup Final last year. They competed real hard. All they’ve been hearing about is the Leafs and how great they are. They showed us they’re still the big boys and we aren’t quite ready. We’ve got to compete way harder than that to have success.”
– Mike Babcock after the Leafs‘ 6-3 loss in Ottawa

Thoughts in note form:

– The Leafs turned the puck over in neutral ice in the first 20 seconds of the game and that set the tone for the first 40 minutes. As is well known, in Guy Boucher’s system, the Senators clog the neutral zone with their 1-3-1, with their left defenceman standing up at the line, and you’re asking for trouble if you don’t take care of the puck in that area of the ice – they can create offense quickly in transition and are even more lethal in that area early this season than they were last year.

Below, Zaitsev is steered into the Senators’ trap by the forechecking forward and doesn’t get the puck deep with Dion Phaneuf stepping up, leading to a turnover and a break for Mike Hoffman — who was a huge thorn in the Leafs‘ side last night — in transition.

The Leafs were playing into their hands from the start. For too long early in the game, there was a failure to take what the Sens were giving them in terms of getting pucks in deep, forcing the Sens to turn and retrieve, and getting down to work on the forecheck.

– Here’s one example of how it should work here from Connor Brown; with a chip in behind Fredrik Claesson, it’s a Sens forward (Hoffman) who goes back for the retrieval and the Leafs manage to create a turnover and generate some zone time.

– The other problem area for the Leafs, in addition to the neutral zone, was defensive-zone turnovers. The Senators are a patient team that picks its spots well on the forecheck, and they caught the Leafs by surprise a number of times in the first half of the game, in particular, leading to turnovers inside their own blue line, chances and zone time against.

One misconception about Boucher’s teams is that they’re all defense and by extension poor offensively. It’s true that the Senators struggled to score at times last year as Boucher undertook a full-blown overhaul of their 5v5 systems and focused on defense above all else, but when Boucher’s systems are being executed properly, his teams can score more than their fair share off of their transition game and forecheck. Everyone remembers the Philadelphia Flyers’ in-game protest against his 1-3-1 in the 2011 playoffs; not as many remember that his Tampa team was top ten in offense in both of his full seasons there.

– Matthews and Nylander were the exception here from the start because they could skill their way through the Sens’ neutral zone with impressive ease. A great example was Matthews’ goal, as Matthews broke out from low in the d-zone through the middle with speed, worked a give-and-go with Nylander, and blew it by Craig Anderson after breaking the line with only one man back for the Senators.

– Nylander was a one-man trap buster in this game, serpentining his way through a clogged neutral zone like a hot knife through butter. Nylander led the team in shot attempts (65% CF), scored on the power play, assisted on Matthews’ goal, and wasn’t on for a Senators goal against.

– After a really bright start, this was certainly a game to forget for Zaitsev, who turned the puck over early and often, the worst of which was the back-breaking giveaway on the Mark Stone goal – off a draw win at center ice — just as the Leafs were mounting a huge push in the third period. The pairing alongside Jake Gardiner, which has been so effective breaking out and moving pucks to start the year, really struggled to make the necessary adjustments against the Senators. Similarly, the Kadri line had its worst night of the season amid a positive start overall.

– If you froze time like in the movie Click, and picked up the puck and placed it in the perfect spot with your hand, you would’ve put it exactly where Nylander put it on that power play marker.

– This is an important fact to keep in mind re: the controversial Roman Polak signing.

While he should be better prepared for the grind this time around, the Leafs can’t afford to have Nikita Zaitsev hit a wall down the stretch again, and Hainsey is turning 37 years old in March (he hasn’t averaged 29 shifts per night, as he has through the first eight games, since 2006-07). I’d argue Gardiner could take on more than he does on the PK, but there is unquestionably a hole here.

– Thought Connor Brown was the Leafs’ best forward outside of the Matthews-Nylander duo. He provided the screen on that Nylander goal, played with urgency, hurried plays and forced turnovers on the forecheck, and should’ve had a big assist on the tying goal if Tyler Bozak elevated the puck when he placed it on a tee for him at the back post in the third period.

– It will be interesting to see how the Leafs respond against the Kings and Canes this week; both teams — like Ottawa — are in the top-five in goals against per game, play with structure and don’t look to trade chances. Can’t always outscore your problems.


Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts


Game in Six