John Tavares’ first hat trick as a Leaf, a four-point game from Auston Matthews, and multi-point nights for Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly and Kasperi Kapanen led the way in a wild 7-6 overtime win in Chicago on Sunday night.
Your game in ten:
1. Before the season started, I thought we’d see a six- or seven-goal game out of the Leafs against Montreal or Ottawa at home, not necessarily in the back-to-back in the road in Chicago, but the offensive capacity of this team was on display tonight — after a brutal start, seven goals were scored in 45 minutes without having more than two lines going. The one-two punch of the Auston Matthews and John Tavares lines firing on all cylinders is more than enough to blow a game open. Exhilarating to watch.
2. We can talk about what Kasperi Kapanen adds to a line as far as the obvious pace and deep-threat speed he brings (e.g. his goal tonight on Matthews airmail pass), but what is not mentioned enough is that he is arguably the second ‘heaviest’ winger on the team behind Zach Hyman on a Leafs roster that is pretty light on the wings (Marleau is a bigger body, but Kapanen is probably #2 as far as a thick guy who will finish a check).
When Kapanen has his bit between his teeth and is playing the body, the combination makes him extremely effective because he can close on defenders so quickly. He’s also not easy to move off of the puck when he’s got a hold of it down low. The line was better as far as how it transitioned the puck and how heavy it was below the circles with Kapanen up there instead of Ennis.
3. It was a golden opportunity for Tyler Ennis next to Matthews with Nylander out and one he has not taken advantage of. There’s no way Babcock can go back to it after Kapanen put up a seven-shot, one goal, two-point performance on Matthews’ wing.
Maybe he gets a look next Kadri at some point on his proper (left) wing — he’s really not a fit for a fourth-line role — but it looks like his audition next to Matthews is over (or should be) and it’ll come down a decision between him and Leivo as to whether he’ll remain in the lineup when Nylander is back (assuming full health for the lineup at that point).
The biggest issue with Ennis is that he looks to have lost a step since his days in Buffalo, and taken in combination with being small and easy to throw off the puck, there’s not much happening out there for him at the moment. He looked good as a hungry vet against non-NHLers and vets playing at half speed in the preseason, but he doesn’t have the separation speed he used to have when he broke into the league (the league’s only gotten faster, and there have been a lot of injuries between then and now).
3. Mitch Marner is amazing at o-zone puck recoveries and disrupting opposition transitions; he tracks really well through the neutral zone, but he’s also incredible at winning pucks back at the top of the zone and turning them into instant offense/grade-A scoring chances.
The Tavares hat trick goal was a great example of how effective that line is with and without the puck; Hyman and Tavares working down low, Marner roving around the zone looking to jump on pass/turnover opportunities.
4. John Tavares hustling down the puck with the second effort, batting it down, and sniping shortside for the hat trick was a perfect summation of Tavares as a player — elite skill + relentless will.
5. Even when the game was 4-4, I thought Garret Sparks was playing a decent enough game to that point. He started the game with a nice ten-save run. Three of the goals he had little chance on, although the initial shot on the 3-3 goal by John Hayden was a puck he should’ve held onto.
The 6-6 goal took a tough deflection in front of him, but the goal that has to be stopped is the Patrick Kane 5-5 goal. He just didn’t inspire a ton of confidence late in the game with how deep he was back in his crease, and obviously, two pucks went through him.
The nice thing about playing behind an offense like the Leafs’ is that it can bail a goalie out. Everything feels different after a win. It’s a much different story as far as Sparks’ confidence — and likely Babcock’s patience — if the Leafs lose the game after those late goals.
6. As much as Sparks’ performance was a mixed bag, the Leafs D did not make the goalie’s job easy on him tonight (beyond hanging him out to dry on the 2-0 Debrincat goal). Dermott and Rielly needed to box out or get out of the way on the two point-shot goals and didn’t do either. Hainsey doesn’t stand to gain much by loosely dangling his stick in the shooting lane on the late 6-6 goal.
7. The Leafs four-minute penalty kill was textbook. Chicago didn’t set up fully once and put zero shots on goal. There was excellent puck pursuit all over the ice from every PK unit that touched the ice. They took away the drop pass well, denied entries, forced dump-ins, and killed some time in the offensive zone.
The Leafs special teams have flown out of the gates through three games (PP clicking at over 40%, PK at 89%), which is one way to compensate for the work in progress that’s underway with their defensive and neutral zone structure at 5v5.
8. Nazem Kadri is now -5 through three games, and while I wouldn’t say he’s been bad (he was one of their better forwards against Montreal), he’s definitely going through an adjustment period with not having a clearly-defined task while playing on a line that’s not jiving. He may be suffering the most from Nylander’s absence due to the trickle-down impact on the lineup; Babcock has kind of just left the line twisting even in the wind even while commenting on its ineffectiveness multiple times.
Once Nylander is back, that gives Babcock the option of playing him with Johnsson and Kapanen or Leivo and Kapanen (which sounds much better), but that’ll require Babcock moving away from Brown as a top-nine guy on this team. Brown, it should be noted, did play his best game of the season so far with a couple of key defensive plays tracking back hard to take away potential scoring opportunities. But there isn’t much going on offensively with that trio on the ice.
9. Andreas Johnsson played just over six minutes at even strength in this game. Not sure what went on in the summer with him, but there has been no jump in his legs since the start of preseason.
10. Loved the anything-you-can-do back-and-forth between Kane and Matthews late in the game. The celebration, the mock celebration, Matthews’ cheeky smile — all of it. Must-see TV. Matthews got the last laugh, by the way — not just in terms of the two points, but he stripped Kane of the puck just inside the Leafs blue line as Kane tried to slide one through his feet. Seconds later, it was in the back of the net.
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts