The Maple Leafs grabbed a point thanks to a late tying goal from James van Riemsdyk before falling in overtime in controversial fashion in Denver on Friday night.
Your game in ten:
1. Within a couple of minutes of this game starting, you were pretty much thinking, “If they can get out of here with a point, that’d be gravy.” It was obvious the jump in the big guns’ legs wasn’t really there – although William Nylander really dug deep and mustered a good push late in the game – which isn’t surprising in a back-to-back situation on the road with travel in between, playing against a rested team at high altitude (and with a key centerman out of the lineup and an emergency call-up in net in Calvin Pickard, to boot).
Flukey Matt Martin and Roman Polak goals from odd angles, combined with a tying goal from JVR on a late push from the Leafs – this was the definition of finding a way to grease out a point, which is important to do when the schedule piles up on you, as it has on the Leafs this month.
2. As the schedule starts to break their way in the New Year (lots of home games, far fewer back-to-backs, more practice time), I’m really curious to see if the Leafs can start stringing together more consistency as far as their structure, defensive play, and the quality of their 60-minute performances. They’ve collected a lot of points lately just on sheer talent and turning it on for parts of games. There’s something slightly concerning but also quite promising about that when you consider the schedule is about to lighten up and Mike Babcock successfully got the Leafs whipped into shape down the stretch last year.
3. As arguably the best net-front guy in the league, James van Riemsdyk has been extremely valuable not just in power play situations but in extra-man situations late in games this year – last night was the third time this season the Leafs have gotten an extra point (or more) on a late goal by JVR. The other two were against Boston in November (when they won in OT after JVR beat out an icing and won a battle to tie it) and Chicago early in the season (when they won in OT). He also scored late in Vancouver in a 2-0 game and the Leafs nearly forced overtime.
4. JVR has been such an important player for the Leafs this season in terms of his production (both in terms of quantity and timeliness), which makes the contract situation all the more awkward knowing Mike Babcock clearly doesn’t trust him as a go-to guy. He’s never played with Auston Matthews or Nazem Kadri for any notable length of time at 5v5 because Babcock feels he has to be sheltered from tough competition. Despite being the team’s leading goal scorer right now, he doesn’t see much ice time in 3-on-3 OT, where he’s behind Matthews, Nylander, Marner, Marleau, Kadri and Brown in the pecking order up front. He’s played just 2.03 3v3 minutes total of the Leafs’ 21 overtime minutes this season:
|James van Riemsdyk||2.03|
5. JVR’s defensive play does often times justify his 5v5 deployment, but the above ice time distribution at 3v3 is hard to get a handle on. Empty-net goal versus Arizona side, Connor Brown hasn’t exactly been rolling offensively of late and he got beat by Nate MacKinnon on the 2-1 goal by Mikko Rantanen, yet he’s starting the 3v3 period nonetheless, while the red-hot JVR is buried in the order. JVR also had a really nice rush earlier in the game where he beat an Avs player with a nice move/change of pace in the neutral zone and nearly scored.
6. Quite a healthy debate on Twitter about the call on Connor Brown in OT. To me, Brown did everything he could there to play within the rules. He turned down ice and skated. Here is the wording of interference rule from the rulebook:
A minor penalty shall be imposed on a player who interferes with or impedes the progress of an opponent who is not in possession of the puck.
A “pick” is the action of a player who checks an opponent who is not in possession of the puck and is unaware of the impending check/hit. A player who is aware of an impending hit, not deemed to be a legal “battle for the puck,” may not be interfered with by a player or goalkeeper delivering a “pick.” A player delivering a “pick” is one who moves into an opponent’s path without initially having body position, thereby taking him out of the play. When this is done, an interference penalty shall be assessed.
To me, that fell within the purview of “a legal battle for the puck.” It’s fair game skate in someone else’s space in a 50-50 puck race if your legs are moving and you don’t initiate contact (which I thought MacKinnon did in this case, not Brown). All Brown did was use good body positioning to win a puck battle.
7. The Leafs really had a case for a hit from behind on Leo Komarov late in the third, as well.
8. The too-many-men call against the Leafs got me thinking that there have been more of those than there should be from the Leafs this year, and it turns out the Leafs lead the league in bench penalties with nine (a couple of those are faceoff violations. I couldn’t find a granular enough penalties break down to look up too-many-men specifically).
The other thing that stood out: Brown’s overtime interference call was the Leafs’ 27th interference penalty of the season, which leads the league by a large margin (the next highest is Detroit with 21). The fact that Toronto and Detroit were one-two made me curious. It turns out if you go back to 2015-16 (when Babcock arrived in Toronto and Babcock understudy Jeff Blashill took over the Red Wings bench), the Leafs lead the league in interference calls with 100 and Detroit is second with 95.
It’s a bit of a trade-off with Babcock hockey, which emphasizes laying picks to create space, back-tracking forwards “getting skin” on opponents through the neutral zone to buy their defensemen time on retrievals, and defencemen stepping up on attackers aggressively at the blue line after dump-ins.
9. Every Martin Marincin game seems to include a sketchy moment in possession and/or stretch pass that’s way off the mark, but he acquitted himself well in his season debut overall in a low-event 15 minutes at even strength (4 shots for & 3 against). He had a nice moment at the offensive blue line and looked good, as always, in his 2:39 of ice time on the PK. I’d like to see him get in a few games in a row here – I’m not convinced Connor Carrick passes the puck very well himself, and Marincin is superior defensively as far as his range/stick and ability on the PK. Either way, unless Marincin really takes the bull by the horns with his opportunity here (which he’s never done to this point in his NHL career), it seems to me the Leafs are going to need to find themselves a decent right-handed depth defenceman to shore up what they already have (Polak, Carrick, Marincin) for the stretch run and playoffs.
10. Last but not least, I hope everyone here at MLHS has a safe and happy new year.