The Maple Leafs rang in the “Next Century” in style with their biggest win of the season on Tuesday afternoon.
Your game in ten:
1. These are the games you dream about if you’re a coach. The superstar is out injured, you’re on a three-game losing skid, and your two other young stars are mired in slumps. Suddenly, everything just clicks: Four-point night from slumping Mitch Marner, the slumping Nylander Nylander scores, the slumping Leo Komarov scores, and the slumping Tyler Bozak puts up a four-point night, along with yet another great showing from your starting goalie and a three-for-three day for the struggling power play. Oh, and you rout your old assistant coach’s team 8-1 for the cherry on top, all on the anniversary of the first ever NHL game.
The Leafs needed to put a bit of a show on for the occasion and to feel good again amid the low-scoring mini-slump they were mired in. They delivered in spades. This was an important two points with a tough back-to-back coming up on the road tomorrow.
2. It wasn’t a great start to the game for the Leafs. Carolina’s game plan was to forecheck the Leafs defence hard with two men coming in with ferocity — and it worked… for a bit. After some sketchy play, two icings and a dumb Matt Martin penalty, it looked like Carolina might feast on the Leafs initially. Enter a timely shorthanded goal – the Leafs’ first of the season – from Leo Komarov.
3. It was a good job by Zach Hyman on the Komarov goal: he was able to pressure Noah Hanifin and disrupt the puck enough for it to squirt loose. In general, Hyman was ferocious on loose pucks today and kept certain-to-be-dead plays alive for his linemates on numerous occasions.
Komarov sold a pass and beat Scott Darling with a well-placed shot that probably should have been a save (with both players on their wrong hand, Komarov is not going to pass it there). The shorthanded goal ended a big drought for Komarov, who has had fans and media start to question his effectiveness and place in the lineup this season. There’s nothing like a good shortie to steal the other team’s wind.
4. Mitch Marner had the weight of the world lifted after breaking a 15-game goal-scoring slump, and he should probably send the Canes’ penalty-killing unit a bottle of something to say thanks for giving him all the time and space in the world to gain the zone and rip another goal past Darling. It was just what Marner needed and just what the Leafs needed.
Marner’s assist later in the game was similar to the Winter Classic goal he scored last year. Walking out from the half-wall, you could see him try for the same shot, but the puck rolled on him, slipped off his stick, and Tyler Bozak buried it.
Marner’s confidence was overflowing after the early goal. Just like that, with a four-point day, he’s now on pace for 56 points – just five shy of last season’s total despite shooting just 4.4% in the opening 35 games.
Interestingly, Marner has eight multi-point games this season, which is tied with Matthews for most on the team. It’s not that Marner is producing poorly overall – it’s just come in fits and starts this year, with his 24 points compiled in just 13 separate games (22 games without a point).
5. Lots of eyes were on the “will he/won’t he be a center” storyline with William Nylander, who was back in the middle on home ice. It was a mostly pressure-free game with it being 2-0 (and growing) around five minutes in, which meant he didn’t have to worry about the odd turnover you get here or there with creative players.
Nylander’s goal probably doesn’t happen if he’s on the wing. The ability to curl back with more lanes available to him is only going to be a benefit to him. Patrick Marleau also might be the perfect linemate for Willy — he doesn’t need to touch the puck a tonne, knows how to let linemates play off of him, and can help cover for the odd defensive miscue while taking the strong-side faceoffs. Alec wrote about how this might be a great marriage back in the summer after the Marleau signing:
This is further down the line, knowing Babcock intends on using Nylander on the right wing again this year, but Marleau centered by Nylander is a tantalizing thought. It’s a lefty-righty combination and the dynamic looks great on paper: Nylander loves having the puck on his stick as much as possible, and Marleau is fantastic at jumping into holes with his explosiveness and smarts.
As effective (and, at times, jaw-dropping) as Nylander and Matthews were together last year, they’re two players who you would like to see have the puck on their sticks as much as possible. Marleau is a nice complement here in that he doesn’t need it much or for very long to score/create, and he obviously has the hands and finishing ability Hyman doesn’t.
6. This shift early in the third period is a great example of why you want Willy at center long term. He can skate in any lane he chooses and generate different looks down the middle or on the left or right wing while orchestrating play.
7. A goal and two assists in just 13 minutes of ice time for James van Riemsdyk sort of sums up his season – elite production for managed minutes. JVR is just outside the top five in goals per 60 in the NHL right now over all situations (sixth behind Anders Lee, Michael Grabner, Alex Ovechkin, Nikita Kucherov and Brock Boeser). He averages a goal about every 30 minutes of ice time.
On the one hand, you could argue that Babcock has him in the sweet spot as is. On the other hand, particularly when the team was struggling to score enough for the previous seven games, you wonder if there exists a possibility where JVR could play a little more and his defensive deficiencies would be less of a factor if he wasn’t permanently paired with the same centerman.
8. A good example here of why Ron Hainsey is such a steady defence partner to play with. Racing back to retrieve the puck, he was a step behind the forward, reached around while getting run into the boards, hooked the puck out with one hand, and it was up and out of the zone.
9. Just a quick nod here to Andreas Borgman, who seems to be (quietly) continuing to settle in on the bottom pair as the coaching staff brings him along slowly. 16:24 is the most he’s played in 20 games (the blowout helps). He finished a plus-two, used his considerable strength to box out and finish hits, made a couple of good carries, moved the puck well, and got his shots through.
10. Babcock put out Jake Gardiner and Connor Carrick on the final power play of the game. It’s hard to recall the last time he had two D out there for a PP, but it was half respect to the other team given the scoreline and also partially about giving a player like Carrick a look he won’t normally get on the power play due to the three other D (two with Zaitsev out) in front of him within the 4F-1D PP formation. Carrick, of course, scored — just about everything the Leafs did turned to gold in this game — and he looked pretty good there, as he did in preseason.