In their first game of 2018, the Toronto Maple Leafs hit the halfway point of their season with a 2-0 loss to the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning.
Your game in ten:
1. In what was a fun measuring stick game, the Leafs showed they weren’t that far off of the elite of the elite, but they’re also not quite there, either. The Tampa defense core, one through six, plays a more organized game in their own end and dictates play much more effectively than the Leafs’ defence group. The Leafs forwards matched up against the Lightning’s deep and talented forward group pretty well and the Leafs are without a key piece of their top four right now, but it was hard to escape the fact that Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman bring elements simply not present on the Leafs’ blue line. Mikhail Sergachev is really coming along for them quickly as well (how’d they get that kid, anyway?)
2. Before anyone makes the inference that the Leafs need their own Drouin-for-Sergachev swap and one of Mitch Marner or William Nylander must be shipped out for defensive help, consider that Jonathan Drouin hasn’t yet matched the single-season point totals Nylander and Marner put up in their rookie seasons, and it doesn’t look like Drouin will this year (his fourth NHL season), either. Not so cut and dry. Marner and Nylander were also among the Leafs’ best forwards in this game, while we’re on the subject.
3. Nazem Kadri’s line and Auston Matthews’ line played Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point’s lines to a saw-off – in Matthews’ 9:30 head to head with Point, the two teams evenly split just eight total shots and 18 total shot attempts, with no goals either way. In Kadri’s 12 minutes head to head with Stamkos, the Leafs out-attempted the Lightning 12-8 and outshot them 6-4, with no goals either way.
Mike Babcock would have been pretty stoked if you told him before the game that Kucherov, Stamkos, Point and Johnson were going to combine for zero points and nine shots on goal, and that the Lightning power play was going to go 0-for-3.
It was a positive, confidence-building night for the Leafs’ penalty kill against the NHL’s top-ranked power play. The best opportunity came off of a rush chance where the Leafs got caught flat-footed holding the line and needed Andersen to bail them out, but other than that, they rarely allowed the Lightning power play to set up comfortably.
4. That’s what made the effort of JVR and Tyler Bozak a little disappointing in this game. Neither showed much jump or tenacity in their puck battles. Despite Mitch Marner turning it on in the final 40 minutes, Bozak finished with a 36% CF and JVR with a 42% CF, and the line was outshot 10-4 while playing largely against the Lightning’s third and fourth units. Both are good depth lines for the Lightning, but neither is more talented than the Leafs’ “third.” They just got outworked, and it wasn’t the fault of the 20-year-old on that line.
That’s been the story pretty frequently through the first half: Despite the team’s solid position in the standings and productive overall offense, the Leafs are not getting the same matchup advantage out of that sheltered scoring trio – at least not as consistently – as they were last season. Through 41 games, that trio has scored 18 goals and conceded 17 at 5v5; last year, they outscored opponents 47-38.
5. Going forward, plenty of playoff battles between good teams play out this way over the course of a series – heavyweight lines cancel each other out and depth contributions become the difference. The Lightning third and fourth lines came up with both of their goals, while the Leafs didn’t get enough out of lines 3 and 4.
The Leafs’ third and fourth lines had combined for 29 and 13 goals, respectively, entering the game, to the Lightning’s 17 and 6 (some of that is down to JVR’s PP opportunity and production, which is far beyond the average “third liner’s”). In the big picture, the Leafs should have an advantage as far as depth scoring over just about every team in the league, but they can’t have L3 getting outworked by checking lines as they did tonight.
6. On that note, Tyler Bozak, with the first half of the season now in the books, is on pace for his lowest point total since his first full 82-game season in the league (2010-11, 37 points). Partially that’s a product of getting bumped from his favourite spot on the power play, but his .35 points per game at even-strength would also be his lowest since 2010-11. Nowhere to go but up in the second half?
7. As far as the fourth line went, after a bad penalty and one particularly painful d-zone shift, Matt Martin was used sparingly (5:38) throughout the game and Babcock tried out some different combinations, with Marner taking a shift on L4 at one point in the third.
Frederik Gauthier didn’t play a ton (8:28 total, 2:11 on the PK) but acquitted himself quite well in his season debut – he went on a couple of rushes offensively including one good scoring chance, was generally behind the puck steering play in the right direction, was consistently on the right side of the puck defensively, and won his one defensive zone draw against Cedric Paquette (2/3 on the dot overall). It wasn’t the easiest game to be dropped into against an elite opponent with the league’s best power play, but The Goat certainly didn’t look in over his head.
8. Liked Babcock’s quote after the game about “level watermarks:”
I liked Goat. I thought he skated. I thought he worked. He was good on the penalty kill. That is the best team in the league. He was out there and looked good to me. Didn’t cause any trouble. Knows how to play.
Even there, on the one shift he got hemmed in against their top line, he had a few mistakes from his wingers but none from him. He just did his job. I liked him.
Now, everybody comes out and everyone is great, and then the level watermark usually sets in. If you’re ready, the level watermark is good enough. If you’re not, it’s not.
9. Has to be said that Frederik Andersen got outdueled by Andrei Vasilveskiy in this game. Andersen was far from poor – you need to score to win, and Vasilevskiy looked unbeatable — but he got caught on behind the net, like he did against the Rangers just before Christmas, on what stood up as the game-winning goal. Andersen’s puckhandling skills are generally underrated, but that goal in a game of this nature is a cheaply-given backbreaker. It’s not all on him – Gardiner put him in a tough spot against the Rangers, and it looked like him and Borgman/Polak weren’t on the same page on that play tonight – but this has to be cleaned up.
10. Last but not least, the beautifully-done Johnny Bower tribute for those who missed it: