The Toronto Maple Leafs made a valiant comeback x2 in the third period to secure a point, but they arguably got what they deserved after a poor first 40 minutes in an overtime defeat to the Florida Panthers on Saturday night.
Your game in ten:
1. This matchup had all the makings of a trap game for me looking through the underlying numbers beforehand.
On the surface, it’s a Florida team that has lost a bunch in a row and is dead last in the East. Below the surface, it’s a team that was limiting high-danger chances and overall scoring chances pretty effectively by clogging up the neutral zone and forcing teams to dump pucks in (something that can make the Leafs bang their heads against the wall at times through either turning pucks over at the line or rinse-and-repeat dump-ins with low retrieval rates).
The Panthers are a top-heavy team that is over-relying on their big guns up front, but they’re a much better team than their current standing (terrible goaltending from James Reimer and Michael Hutchinson is a big part of it). Plus, we all know Roberto Luongo traditionally owns the Leafs.
2. It’s also obvious that opponents have made adjustments for the Leafs, who are going to have to find a way to counter-adjust (and they will).
On the power play, the opposing PK units are collapsing into a tightly-packed box when Marner or Rielly has the puck and playing the Matthews shot extremely aggressively, opting to pick their poisons and let the other two shoot rather than give up outnumbered situations at the net front or give up a clean Matthews look. Look how aggressive the Panthers are the two times when Matthews gets a hold of the puck here:
The Leafs’ top unit is also flat out getting outworked for loose pucks at times since they’ve gone cold, which is what Babcock was alluding to after the game. Marner gaining confidence in his shot — which he should from tonight’s two goals — is going to be big for getting the Leafs power play going again if I were to guess.
At 5v5, the gameplan is going to be to force the Leafs to play a shorter, heavier game, clog up the neutral zone, make them dump pucks in, and take the game to the walls. “If they’re going to score on us, make them do it the hard way and we’ll see how they deal with it.”
The Leafs weren’t willing to play desperate enough hockey until it was arguably too late, but the great thing is this Leaf team’s too-late is different than most teams’ because of the number of difference makers on the roster who can change the game with just one or two shots. And that’s ultimately what Mitch Marner did in the third.
A loser point was a fair result considering the Leafs’ effort in the first 40 minutes.
3. I wanted to find a few examples of how the Panthers strangled the Leafs in the neutral zone in the first 40 minutes and found three inside a minute in short order.
Their D were doing a good job of holding the line and their forwards were tracking back hard to swarm the puck carrier, causing the Leafs a lot of issues trying to traverse the neutral zone cleanly.
4. I don’t want to overstate matters here, though, because a lot of it is down to previously red-hot sticks going colder — such is the ebbs and flows of any year — as well as running into really good goaltending performances in these past two games, and also Frederik Andersen experiencing a more human stretch of games here of late. Those first two things go hand in hand often, as well. The natural tendency can be to start looking for the perfect shot or the extra pass instead of just getting pucks on net with bodies at the net, which is the formula that actually started the come back in the third period via the point shot tipped by John Tavares.
Hockey can be a pretty simple game. Led by some beastly shifts from Tavares (who was by then moved in between Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen in an increasingly less-rare-than-usual Babcock shakeup), the Leafs picked up their urgency level in the third, won some battles, simplified offensively, and suddenly the pucks started falling for them.
5. Can’t play a 2v1 much more poorly than Morgan Rielly did in OT, but — while I don’t have an intermission segment on HNIC every week — I think analyzing mistakes late in 3-on-3 OT for players who are late in their shifts is a nonsense exercise. Leg muscles are lathered in lactic acid by that point and brains are no longer working as they should.
6. Auston Matthews is so good that it’s hard to criticize anything that he does, but the “determination has to meet our skill level” comment from Mike Babcock after the game applies to his first 40 minutes as much as anyone on the team. We all know Matthews needs a split second to change the complexion of a game, but he doesn’t have the puck on his stick enough throughout games right now to be influencing play like he can and should. The Tampa game was a nice step forward as far as how he was skating over 200 feet of the ice — that’s closer to how explosive, and dangerous from shift to shift, he looked coming out of camp before the injury— but in tonight’s first 40, it felt like a step back again.
Before the game, Babcock addressed whether Matthews was skating like he did before the injury yet and this part of the response was interesting:
We’ll know more in the next little bit, but just by talking to our science people and going through it, it should be time here… pretty close now.
7. On that note, in the third period after Babcock put the Hyman – Matthews – Nylander line back together, I thought this was a good example of why Auston Matthews and William Nylander work so well together as a lefty-righty duo. Matthews’ preference is to lay the puck off, power through neutral ice, and get the puck back inside the offensive blue line in an area where he can charge down a defenseman and rip a shot on goal. Obviously, Mark Pysyk played this well here.
I get that starting Nylander in easier matchups down on the third line on the road makes sense to do as he works his way back (remember that the data the Leafs sports science team tracks suggests Nylander won’t hit his stride fitness-wise until early January), but Matthews hasn’t been himself here of late and it’s important to get him going. Seems like the right time is soon to reunite the pair, with Nylander making nice strides forward with each game.
8. The most annoying aspect of the Department of Player Safety’s wheel of justice for me is that if Kasperi Kapanen stayed out of the game after the hit he took from Troy Brouwer rather than returning, there’s a better chance there’s a proper response to the hit coming from the league. The intent is worse than what Zach Hyman did for his two-game sentence (which I’m not dismissing or suggesting was a good hit at all). Brouwer’s was late, and he turned his skate to make sure he caught Kapanen’s leg. Whether Kapanen is just a little sore/stiff versus full-blown tearing his MCL is just down to total chance. The intent is what matters, and that is a suspension-worthy intent knowing the lateness of the hit and how he manipulated his body to make sure he caught a vulnerable part of the player.
9. Sounds like Mitch Marner has had his teammates, Mike Babcock, the coaching staff, and parents Paul and Bonnie all imploring him to shoot more in the past couple of weeks. We can see why. It’s not the hardest shot, but it’s a deceptive and accurate release when he’s confident enough to use it.
0 goals in around 250 minutes of individual ice time (13 games) and then two in a minute and 59 seconds.
10. The Leafs have now lost four of their last five, officially counting this as their worst stretch of the schedule so far, although they did get two loser points along the way. A little adversity won’t hurt you.
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts