It took five minutes and 12 seconds for John Tavares to announce his arrival with his first (unofficial) goal as a Toronto Maple Leaf.
The first glimpse at the Tavares-Marner connection was everything Leafs fans were dreaming of all summer as each enjoyed three-point nights in the Leafs‘ 4-1 win over the Ottawa Senators to open 2018 preseason.
Knowing it is, as Mike Babcock calls it, an “individual time of year,” here are some quick notes on the individual performances from exhibition game #1.
John Tavares (#91) – Consistent effort and execution shift-to-shift. Foxy all over the ice with countless small plays without the puck that affect the opposition’s routes, wedging them off and forcing turnovers with his mind. Showed his impressive strength on his edges and heaviness on the puck in traffic, as well as his ability to manipulate the feet of defenders and exploit the open space he creates for himself. He cut into the slot for prime looks on multiple occasions, bore down on both of his scoring chances, and his individual effort set up Marner for the putaway 4-1 goal.
It’s just preseason, but don’t underestimate the relief of opening his Leafs goal-scoring account (x2) and getting that out of the way early.
Tavares’ review of his own performance? “I know I can be a lot quicker with my game, just with my pace of play, whether that’s moving my feet or making quicker plays and getting it to my linemates when they’re open.”
JOHN TAVARES SCORE HIS FIRST AS A LEAF pic.twitter.com/MIxsHc5tlT
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) September 18, 2018
JOHN TAVARES SCORES HIS SECOND AS A LEAF pic.twitter.com/5wkpoPHmQU
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) September 19, 2018
Mitch Marner (#16) – He was flying. He found Tavares alone down low for the opener on the power play and jumped in off the draw to recover a loose puck in the third period, leading to Tavares’ second off of Justin Holl’s point shot. He capped his night off with a goal on an on-and-off-the-stick release while following up on the play on Tavares’ fantastic individual effort (stripping the puck off Mikkel Boedker, leading the rush, holding off the defenseman, finding Marner).
Marner also looked like he really enjoyed his taste of the penalty kill; he immediately forced a turnover behind the Senators net and the Leafs nearly scored. In the small glimpses we’ve seen of Marner while down a man, he’s always looked invigorated by the opportunity to kill penalties. We’ll see if Babcock uses him in a secondary role to close out PKs. Indications are he’s open to the idea this season.
Zach Hyman (#11) – He couldn’t convert on a breakaway chance and he bobbled the puck a bunch through the neutral zone, but his puck pressure game complemented Marner and Tavares nicely, which is the tradeoff. Not unlike past years riding shotgun with Matthews, he’s going to get a ton of open looks this season on pucks squirting free from Tavares’ center lane drives and ability to draw in defenders in tight to the net.
Josh Leivo (#32) – Tied for the team lead with four shots on goal, he was highly effective on the cycle and with the puck in his feet (he’s perhaps the best on the team at playing the puck in his skates). Short of scoring, you can’t ask for much more in game one of preseason. It’s rarely fluid with Leivo, but the puck usually ends up going in the right direction with him on the ice via second and third efforts on bobbled pucks/passes. He can tune in and out defensively and disengages and re-engages intermittently coming back on his checks.
Nazem Kadri (#43) – He wore the goat horns on goal #1 as he was super casual in possession next to his own net, but he settled in the rest of the way. Kadri’s never been a big preseason guy, but he’ll be ready to go on October 3rd versus Montreal. We saw his trademark long memory when he got Mark Borowiecki back late in the game after taking a big hit from the Sens defenseman early in the game.
Connor Brown (#28) – Industrious effort and a good first warmup game for Brown. No shots on goal, but he was buzzing the net.
Carl Grundstrom (#20) – Invisible outside of one good strip on the backcheck early in the game and a couple of good hits. No shots on goal.
Adam Cracknell (#15) – Good hustle, not enough skill to crack this Leafs roster. He’ll be competent emergency relief in case of multiple center injuries on the Leafs.
Trevor Moore (#42) – Good game with smart plays and a high work rate, but he needs to drive inside more. Assisted on the Borgman goal.
Dmytro Timashov (#41) – Determined game. He was committed in his one-on-one battles, initiated contact, and was forcing his way into the home plate area. Completed plays under pressure and was smart with the puck, for the most part.
Emerson Clark (#58) – The unexpected pleasant surprise of the game. He was noticeable almost every shift; he was hard on pucks and he hit to hurt on the forecheck. Looks like he’ll be a good grinder for Sheldon Keefe on the Marlies. Assisted on the Borgman goal.
Morgan Rielly (#44) – Good warmup game; he was active carrying the puck and managed to carry through all three zones on a couple of occasions. Credited with the one shot on goal but flicked a few on net tonight.
Ron Hainsey (#2) – Rusty, to say the least.
Travis Dermott (#23) – Mixed first game of preseason; he sprung a couple of quality stretch passes and had some nice moments, but he was too busy at times and will need to settle his game down as the exhibition season continues.
Igor Ozhiganov (#92) – Showed some promise as a #6 if he can polish up some rough edges to his game (took some bad routes, had some bad angles, hands looked a bit tight passing). His hockey fundamentals are fine — he has good defensive instincts, knows where to stand, and can box out properly. He certainly stands out on this team with his size and reach. He stepped in and showed off a cannon from the point that missed the net just wide in the third period, and he was credited with four shots on goal on the game sheet.
Mike Babcock’s review was positive after the game: “He can pass the puck, he can get it through, he sees the ice, his head’s up, he’s big. Good looking player.”
This isn’t based on anything solid, but it feels like Ozhiganov might have a bit of an early edge for the opening night #6 spot knowing he brings elements Babcock values that are not present elsewhere in the top six.
Andreas Borgman (#51) – He scored a pretty goal and was one of the most active Leafs defensemen on the night. He looks to have improved his pivots and transitional plays; he turns plays up ice quicker and more efficiently. Borgman played his way onto the team out of camp last year, and while the odds aren’t as in his favour this year with the emergence of Travis Dermott, he is off to another good start here.
Andreas Borgman with the re-direct! 2-1 Leafs. pic.twitter.com/32Oeqr6nEV
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) September 18, 2018
Justin Holl (#54) – This wasn’t a great game from Holl, but he had some nice moments, showing his prowess for breaking up plays before they develop in the neutral zone — one of his best assets defensively — and he moved the puck well at times also. Assisted on Tavares’ second goal by getting the puck on net.
Curtis McElhinney (#35) – The lone Senators goal was not on him; it was a bad turnover from Kadri that left him all alone and he was beaten by a top-shelf finish from in tight. He wasn’t needed all that much in his half of the contest (13 shots against), but he was sharp when called on.
Garret Sparks (#40) – Good showing. He got into the game with the Leafs in control, but the shot clock was nearing 40 tonight, so both goalies got to feel the puck. Sparks faced the heavier workload of the two netminders (22 shots) and was perfect on the night. The backup goaltending situation is no clearer through one exhibition game.
Mike Babcock Post Game
Are you happy with the progress Tavares and Marner have made together through camp so far?
Babcock: Yeah, there is another guy on the line. His name is Hyman. He’s the guy who keeps getting the puck for them there. But no, obviously, they had a good night. We’ve got a lot to work to do, as you saw here tonight. The ice was tough sledding out there, but we’ve got a lot of good signs. I thought Leivo played well. I thought Brown gave us jump. I thought Clark did a good job for us. I liked our backend. I thought Ozhiganov had a good night for us. And both goalies were good.
What did Ozhiganov show in his first taste of the NHL?
Babcock: He can pass the puck. He can get it through. He sees it. His head is up. He’s big. He’s a good looking player.
How is he doing with the language barrier?
Babcock: We asked him to go to English lessons once a week and he said, “No, I’ll go five times a week.” He’s just mowing it down in a hurry. He’s a good kid. He’s a worker. Obviously, we’re hoping he continues to make progress. A good start for him, though.
Garret Sparks get a chance to come in. Is he looking to push it from one game to the next and maybe change your mind if he can?
Babcock: I don’t have any mind on anything. I think we just watch the players. They’re going to solve it. Obviously, Andersen is our goalie and these two guys are battling to be Andy’s teammate. They’ll sort it out as we go here.
John Tavares Post Game
Good to get the nerves out of the way with the goal early?
Tavares: Well, you haven’t played in five months. I think it’s nice to just kind of get back into it and get some of that rhythm into your game and that feel again, absorbing contact. You go from offseason and training camp and competing in practice to playing against opponents that aren’t on your team. Some of that stuff is nice to get going. You want to do good things and it’s always nice to be rewarded.
What did you like about your line tonight?
Tavares: I just thought we got better as the game went on. It’s one exhibition game. It’s a start. Good to get some results and get some positive things going. But we know we have a lot to work on and a lot to get better at as we keep feeling each other out. We’ll get back to work tomorrow.
What is making the line work right now?
Tavares: I think it’s just keeping it simple and communicating a lot. We know we’re still feeling each other out. I’m still getting comfortable and getting used to the system. We’re just keeping things simple and talking to each other and being predictable for one another. It’s a small step. Good to do some good things today. We’ll move forward.
On Mitch’s goal, did you expect him to be there? Did you see him? How did that play develop?
Tavares: I think he was there throughout the game at times. I just didn’t make the plays quick enough. It’s nice to reward him and get him the puck in a good area. He found me a few times. For me, I know I can be a lot quicker with my game, just with my pace of play, whether that’s moving my feet or making quicker plays and getting it to my linemates when they’re open.
What are the dynamics of a power play that can hopefully be elite on a consistent basis as we move forward?
Tavares: You have more than five guys that have the ability that we have… everyone is dangerous. It’s hard to take all of the options away when you have one extra guy and everyone is multi-dimensional, being able to make plays or shoot the puck; score goals from the perimeter or be able to get on the inside and crash the net and find rebounds around the net.
On a personal note, it is a new chapter of your career. Is it kind of cool to get your first goal early like that?
Tavares: It’s always good to get rewarded and help contribute. I know I am counted on in that area. I don’t try to look into it too deep. I just try to look at the positives and some areas I know I can be a lot better in and I know I can be better in for my linemates. I just want to build on it. We’ve got some more time and more games ahead before the regular season. That’s when you want to be in full stride — Game 1. I’ve got some work still to do.