Auston Matthews scored twice and John Tavares notched his first as a Leaf as the Toronto Maple Leafs started off the new campaign with an ugly 3-2 overtime win over the Montreal Canadiens in the 2018 home opener.
Your game in ten:
1. The Canadiens were on top of the Leafs early and often in this game. They established their forecheck right from the puck drop and the Leafs were struggling to break out cleanly, throwing the puck away 5-6 times in the first three minutes alone. They couldn’t seem to execute shorter breakouts through the middle of the ice without turning pucks over and they resorted quickly to the familiar flip outs/stretch passes with a low success rate.
The Leafs were pretty careless with the puck in all three zones, really; it was all a little too cute and too soft from the team in Blue and White through most of the 60 minutes at 5v5. As far as who controlled play at full strength, who exited the zone quickly and cleanly, who played with more structure in tighter five-man units, and who won the majority of the puck battles, you wouldn’t have thought it was the Leafs who were the team that entered the year as Stanley Cup favourites. By the time the game entered OT, the Leafs were out-possessed 57-43 and outshot 30-20 at 5-on-5.
Work to do.
2. John Tavares willed the Leafs into it in the first period by drawing a penalty doing what he does best, which is cut inside into the hard ice and hold onto the puck with defenders draped all over him. From there, it was vintage Matthews for his first of the year.
Special moment with the standing ovation and a big relief, no doubt, for Tavares to notch his first as a Leaf in the home opener as well — on a brilliant individual effort, to boot. Not an explosive skater, he’s so good at creating separation nonetheless. He attacks the defender’s space in front of them when he has the puck on his stick and claims their ice, while opening up his own space behind and beside him to exploit. It’s like a wide receiver playing puppeteer with a corner back’s feet. It’s going to be a pleasure to watch for the next seven years.
3. The Leafs’ best puck mover on the right side of their defence in this game — granted, not saying much — was Igor Ozhiganov by a fair margin. The debuting rookie was gapping up well off the rush; while he isn’t as aggressive as Dermott in that regard, he was effective at disrupting play, was quick and efficient going back for pucks, and he made reliable breakout passes on the tape consistently – specifically in the first period, when he also pinched in and nearly set up a goal for Dermott on a nice cross-ice pass (the puck hit Hyman’s stick or it probably was going in).
It wasn’t a perfect game — his five-man unit were hemmed on a couple of occasions — but when he had pass options presented to him, Ozhiganov usually made the most of them. Alongside Dermott, he was as steady of a first pass as the Leafs had tonight (62.5% CF for the pairing). It’s way too early to make any conclusions, but it would be one headache solved on the right side if Ozhiganov can keep this up as the competition ramps up.
4. Definitely a big believer in not rushing to judgments in October as well as giving veterans time to find their rhythm again, but Ron Hainsey’s play isn’t inspiring confidence early. That pairing had a miserable night up against the Habs top line in Tatar, Gallagher and Danault — ~25% possession. Shaky moving the puck, burned wide stepping up on a few occasions, took a bad penalty, slow getting back to pucks — it wasn’t pretty. But it’s early.
5. Up front, I’m not sure the Leafs could say they really had any one line going at 5v5. Tavares was their best forward at evens, but the line itself wasn’t as good as it will be once it gets going (Marner was better at 4v5 than 5v5, Hyman missed time with injury in camp).
The Matthews line was lacklustre at even strength — bottom of the team with ~30% possession — as they were pretty casual in possession and didn’t take care of the puck. Obviously, a major component is currently absent there.
Kadri’s effort was good individually, but the line wasn’t clicking and it hasn’t really been a fluid-looking trio outside of one decent preseason game (Brown, in particular, has to start initiating contact more and being more of a presence on the forecheck). The team’s best 5v5 shifts came with Kadri up on the Tavares-Marner line.
6. Best two Leafs tonight: Tavares and Frederik Andersen. The Habs didn’t generate a ton of grade-A chances among their 36 shots, but Andersen was really sharp — economical and quiet, read the play well, didn’t give out many second opportunities. A good start as he looks to buck the October stigma. Unfortunately, the Leafs picked up where they left off in terms of the shot volume against, so it goes without saying that Freddy needs to be good.
7. Criticism of the performance aside, it speaks to the talent on the team that it was pretty much game over once it reached 3-on-3 OT. The gameplan for most teams will be to win the initial draw, slow it down, hold onto possession, and cash in on the first breakdown. The Canadiens did that for a bit when 3-on-3 first started but — after a nice defensive play by Marner on Drouin — the Leafs got possession back, brought on fresh legs with Matthews-Marleau, and the Habs never touched it again before it was in the back of the net in a blink.
8. Here was the even strength ice time splits for Tavares, Matthews and Kadri in game one: 13:55, 14:08, and 13:44 respectively. Last season’s averages: 15:12 (in NY), 15:57, and 14:40. That’s about three Babcock shifts fewer for Tavares, four fewer for Matthews, and one and a half fewer for Kadri, who Babcock worked onto the Tavares-Marner line a couple of times. Going to be interesting to monitor throughout the year.
9. This is a Habs team that has been hardworking and structured through preseason and into tonight, and Claude Julien seems to be getting more than the sum of the parts early (particularly on the blue line), but ultimately, this isn’t a good or particularly heavy Habs team that just out-possessed the Leafs handily. As Babcock put it, there is hopefully a message to be taken away from this. Of note: The Leafs will play against Washington, St. Louis, LA, and Winnipeg x2 all in a six-game span between Oct. 13-27. Lots of good, heavier cycle teams are coming up that should be a good test for the Leafs early in the year. I’m betting Babcock doesn’t hate how the schedule breaks down there.
Mike Babcock after the Leafs' 3-2 win over Montreal to start the season: "We have to play way harder and way better than we did tonight"
Full post-game remarks: https://t.co/h8JC5NZgIt
— MLHS (@LeafsNews) October 4, 2018
The Leafs are going to be able to beat a lot of teams with their B/C game this season. That shouldn’t be taken for granted; great teams need to be able to do that at times over a long season. The challenge for Babcock is getting the A game out of them more often than not. If this game was any indication, the Leafs are going to be on the receiving end of other team’s best efforts often this year.
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts