It was all about the special teams scoring at the Bell Centre on Wednesday night as the Toronto Maple Leafs scored twice on the power play and twice shorthanded (on the same penalty kill) in their 5-3 victory over the Montreal Canadiens, moving them to 5-1-0 in the exhibition season.
Thoughts in note form:
– It was a rough first 20 minutes that the Leafs were fortunate to emerge tied 1-1 from (outshot 9-3 to start the game). They were turnover happy in their own end, with lots of giveaways off of defensemen sticks. They were and done offensively, and didn’t establish much of a forecheck; the Habs were D-to-D and out for the most part.
At 5v5, the Leafs got outworked for a good chunk of the game by a hungrier Habs team. Brendan Gallagher was battling like it was the playoffs. It’s something the Leafs can expect a lot this year — other teams’ best efforts. It didn’t matter in the end because — besides it being preseason — the size of the skill gap was obvious. That’s going to be the challenge for Babcock: implementing structure and consistent work ethic over 60 minutes on a team that knows what it can do on the power play and is confident in its ability to score in bunches. It’s also why he’s so ecstatic about what the team has added in the past two seasons in example setters like Patrick Marleau and John Tavares, in addition to their obvious talents.
Auston Matthews: "If you don't do things right, play the right way, take care of the puck, all that high-powered offence is kind of pointless so we have a lot of work to do. This is probably a good little wake-up call for us going into this final pre-season game & regular season"
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) September 27, 2018
– Mitch Marner, who was going early and right through the entire 60 minutes, drew a power play in the first period that sprung the team and the new top unit into action. It looked fantastic — so dynamic, with so many weapons and moving parts. Marner slipped a feed to Matthews, who missed an empty net right away. Tavares then had a great look, again with Marner creating. Marner and Matthews then kicked it back and forth behind the goal line before Matthews found Kadri out of the corner and Kadri ripped home nicely from some soft ice in the high slot.
– The fourth line struggled in the opening frame. Par Lindholm was confused on the PP goal against — caught twirling high in the zone, Tomas Tatar stepped into space off the halfwall and ripped one home. After the first power play, they had a defensive zone draw against the Gallagher line — an important test for them, as they’ll need to follow up power plays effectively if the Leafs are going to load up their top unit with their top three centres. They lost their assignments off the draw and the Habs nearly scored.
– It was a nice setup from Lindholm on the Kapanen shorthanded goal, but there is a work in progress underway on line four. I’ve mostly liked what I’ve seen from Lindholm overall this preseason, but he was taking some long routes defensively and making the game harder on himself than it needed to be. He also went 1-for-5 on defensive-zone draws (5 for 12 overall). Johnsson has to find another level, too, obviously.
– The top PP unit struck again to start the second in even more spectacular fashion. Marner found the seam and from there it was the trademark freakish Matthews release— takes the pass across-the-body, on and off the stick, ripped bar down, in one fluid motion. No chance for Carey Price.
– The only play opposing PK units are going to have for this group is to try to take away Matthews and Tavares and challenge Marner to shoot the puck. As we saw last year, that won’t work effectively; Marner is so good at patiently pulling PK units apart, disguising intentions and finding tiny windows to get pucks through. The shot-tip to Kadri is something he finds with regularity and they will also be effective at funnelling pucks to the net front, where Kadri is effective as a net crasher and Tavares is so strong in tight on his skates/stick. They can also just switch the puck, with Morgan Rielly facilitating the movement up top, and have it run through Matthews for a time. Really, this has been a long way of saying this is a totally unfair advantage the Leafs have at their disposal.
– Calle Rosen and Igor Ozhiganov were putting themselves right in the mix for that bottom pairing opening night lineup card, but they took a step back in this game. They settled in a little as the game wore on, but it was a real struggle getting pucks moving north cleanly for that pairing in the first 40 minutes.
In addition to a few egregious turnovers, Rosen was handily outmuscled/worked by Brendan Gallagher on the 2-2 goal — that’s the big weakness in his game defensively (defending around the net, withstanding a forecheck, containing off the cycle). Travis Dermott is still a little raw defensively, but he is a real competitor and more of a fire hydrant as far as his physical strength. The question with Ozhiganov, who has some nice attributes (size, reach, moves the puck OK), is how he copes as the games get faster and faster, and this wasn’t a great indication re: his readiness right away in what was closer to an NHL contest.
Ozhiganov has the fact that he’s right-handed going for him, while Justin Holl and Connor Carrick haven’t totally grabbed the bull by the horns yet, but the door has to be open still if Holl can play well this weekend. We don’t know what kind of verbal agreement there might be in place in order to get Ozhiganov over here, but acclimating to the North American game with the Marlies rarely hurt anyone if it comes down to it.
– Marner is clearly on another level this Fall. That old saying about when skill meets hard work — Marner is such an industrious player, has elite skills, and the results speak for themselves. He’s only looking quicker and more confident than he did during his lights-out finish to last season plus playoffs. Unsurprisingly, he’s a major weapon on the penalty kill with his anticipation skills and ability to cover so much of the ice. The late third-period Marleau goal was a video game shift by Marner.
30 seconds of pure Mitch Marner. pic.twitter.com/17yUf15WbV
— Juno (@junotheleafs) September 27, 2018
– The fourth line is a work in progress, but I’ve had to squint to find Connor Brown’s number in preseason. Kasperi Kapanen was generating speed and shot opportunities off the rush, even if he goes fast in the wrong direction regularly (if he could learn when to trim off speed to his advantage rather than going full speed in all situations, he could really take a step offensively). We’ll see how it shakes out when the games start mattering — and when Nylander shows up, bumping Ennis down — but the Leivo – Kadri – Brown line has barely registered for me so far.
– If Marner and his four-point game was the first star, Frederik Andersen was the close second, facing 36 shots and a good number of high-quality scoring chances. Can he buck the October blues this time around? He looks great.