The Toronto Maple Leafs fell to their second consecutive defeat for the first time this season after being held to just one goal by the St. Louis Blues on the heels of their shutout loss on Thursday versus Pittsburgh.
Your game in ten:
1. To some extent, this kind of adjustment was probably inevitable if you’re the Leafs. They scored 33 goals in seven games, winning six of seven to start while riding two lines heavily for their offense, with their top players putting up video-game numbers. The goals were pouring in on the power play and off the rush. Neutral zones were wide open to start the season, not to mention they played six non-playoff teams in their first seven games.
They ran into a couple of good teams that were more desperate than them in Pittsburgh (lost two straight), St. Louis (lost three straight & four of five coming in, but that’s a nice team on paper). The Penguins and Blues clamped things down much better through the neutral zone, outworked the Leafs, and scored some dirty goals. At some point, you’re going to be on the receiving end of a douse of cold water when you’re winning games so easily and the offense is coming so effortlessly as it was in the Leafs’ case to start the year. The opposition has just looked hungrier than the Leafs in the past two.
2. The other factor worth mentioning here: The Leafs played nine games in 17 days to start the season, more than any other team in the league. The Blues entered the game not just angry and urgent — they played one game in their previous five days, giving them plenty of practice time to work on their early-season issues (23 goals against in six games). After their first two games of the season, the Penguins had a two-games-in-nine-days stretch.
It shouldn’t need to be said, but given it was easy for the expectations to get a bit whacky following the Leafs dream start to the season, perhaps it needs to be: The NHL schedule is a helluva long grind.
The Leafs will now play two games in the next eight days.
3. Mission number one if you’re the Leafs entering this game was to test Jake Allen, who had lost four of five and was sporting a .877 save percentage coming into the night, early and often. It never happened. Credit to St. Louis for what appeared to be a high number of timely shot blocks and for getting bodies in shooting lanes — they were credited with 23 total blocked shots and the Leafs also missed the net 18 times — but the Leafs never executed the kind of gameplan a team should against a fragile opponent/goaltender that is leaking goals. They never really got pucks to the net and drove the hard areas of the ice for second and third opportunities. Just eight shots on net through 40 minutes.
4. Notes about the schedule and the ebbs and flows of a long year aside, there are some concerns worth pointing out, namely that the Leafs need to get their secondary offense going — which is not news to anyone.
Add up the Leafs’ total goals from Nazem Kadri, Connor Brown, Josh Leivo, Par Lindholm, Tyler Ennis, Andreas Johnsson, Frederik Gauthier, Travis Dermott, Igor Ozghiganov and Martin Marincin — their bottom six forwards and bottom pair on defense — through nine games, and it adds up to only one more than Ron Hainsey’s goals output (two). Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev have combined for zero goals as well, while Zach Hyman is still looking for his first through nine.
5. Nazem Kadri is a team-worst minus-seven through nine games, has four assists and zero goals, and on a night when the Leafs didn’t really have any line creating much of anything, Mike Babcock never tried Kadri up with Tavares and Marner even for a shift to spark the team and Kadri individually. That one beats me. We’ve seen the spark it can create and Kadri badly needs to gain some traction at 5-on-5.
6. Instead, the plan seemed to be to get Nazem Kadri’s line — with Lindholm and Brown — up against the Brayden Schenn, Vlad Tarasenko, and Jaden Schwartz line in an attempt to get Kadri going in a top matchup assignment (also probably a response/message after Matthews’ poor showing against Crosby, given Kadri took on that matchup in the third period of the PIT game).
That line struggles enough to score against third and fourth lines, so I’m not sure how the steep step up in competition was ever going to help get them going. In the 8-9 even strength minutes with Kadri and Brown on the ice against Schenn, Tarasenko and Schwartz, the Leafs didn’t put a single shot on goal.
7. While it relieved the Matthews line of some of the matchup burden, Matthews, Kadri and Tavares played 12 minutes and change at 5v5, with Tavares ranking third in that order. You want your big guns playing more and getting into more of a rhythm than that.
To give Babcock some benefit of the doubt, this isn’t an easy situation to sort through as far as allocating the minutes and keeping everyone happy and going, but Connor Brown playing 35 seconds more than John Tavares at 5v5 is not a good look.
8. On the power play (0 for 4), the Blues were really aggressive about challenging Matthews’ time and space on the halfwall, while leaving Rielly be up top. More than that, Matthews and the overall unit just weren’t particularly sharp. Matthews bobbled the puck a number of times on the man advantage; on his one decent look, he didn’t challenge Allen as much as he usually does, getting only half on his shot. Marleau came the closest on the three power plays; it looked like his redirect hit the shaft of Allen’s stick to prevent it from becoming 3-2 with five minutes left to play. Overall, the Blues’ PK units played hungry and were far more urgent than the Leafs’ PP units on the 50-50 pucks.
9. Two quick notes: Travis Dermott has to be way firmer on the puck/his stick on the wall on both the 1-0 and 2-0 Blues goals.
Morgan Rielly blew the clearance on the PK goal against, but he continues to truck along offensively with four goals (T-1st) and 14 points (1st) through nine. It feels like he’s scored that same “trickler” goal from tonight 10 times in the past year or so. His shot may never be a big weapon, but he’s figured out his timing and how to get it on and off his stick quickly through traffic in front.
10. Received some pushback for saying the Auston Matthews line badly needs Nylander’s play-driving ability back when the Leafs were lighting the lamp, so here’s the update: 47% of the shots, 48% of the shot attempts, 45% of the unblocked shot attempts, 48% of the scoring chances, and 44% of the high-danger chances for that line.
It’s not particularly surprising. Kapanen and Marleau as a wing tandem don’t complement Matthews all that well because they aren’t high-end playmakers nor do they excel at carrying the puck through neutral ice and setting up the zone. One of them might work on the line; not both.