Game #37 Review: Toronto Maple Leafs 5 vs. Detroit Red Wings 4 (OT)

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Detroit Red Wings
Photo: Chris Young/The Canadian Press

with notes from Alec Brownscombe

The Toronto Maple Leafs pulled off a buzzer beater to tie the game late before polishing off a wild win in overtime to head into the break with four victories in six days.

Your game in ten:

1.  For the first couple of shifts in the opening period, the Leafs jumped on the Red Wings and generated multiple scoring chances with the go-for-the-throat-early mentality you want to see from the Leafs when an inferior enters their building. Within 30 seconds, Kasperi Kapanen opened the scoring on an opening shift saw William Nylander win a puck battle, play soccer with the puck in his feet to corral it off the wall, and initiate the cycle, eventually leading to a rebound goal for Kapanen.

This was a clever little coaching move by Babcock to give Nylander the opening shift on his off wing with Matthews and Kapanen to get a player with sagging confidence into the game early. It worked just like he drew it up.

2.  Paradoxically, the early reward of a goal may have been the opposite of what the Leafs needed in this game. They followed up their 1-0 tally with just one shot on goal in the next 19+ minutes of hockey. It seemed as though they thought this was going to be an easy night after the early goal, and Mike Babcock also had that read on things after the game. This Red Wings team may not be deep or good enough at any position, but what they aren’t is an easy out this season. They’re a subpar team in the standings, obviously, but most of their losses dating back to mid-October are one-goal decisions.

The way this game mirrored the 5-4 overtime loss from December 6 made you scratch your head; it seemed like the Leafs had no memory of the fact that this Red Wings team has plenty of speed up front and works hard most nights. Detroit won all the puck races as the first period wore on, including an extended o-zone shift in the build-up to a deserved 2-1 goal late in the period.

3.  Even when the Leafs are losing the zone time battle, they’re still usually creating the majority of the high-danger chances around the net. They create offense seemingly at will and are rewarded often for part-efforts; they only need to turn it on for a shift or two to change the complexion of a game, as we saw with the 3-2 and 3-3 goals to complete the first comeback. The shot attempts finished 43-32 for Detroit, but the Leafs generated more scoring chances (21-17) and shot attempts in the slot (10-8) at 5-on-5.

4. Trevor Moore found a way to make an impact in his debut despite only 5:27 of ice time. He brings more than enough pace and urgency to play at the NHL level, but earning Mike Babcock’s trust doesn’t just happen overnight. He should get a run of opportunities after the break as the Leafs will still be without Hyman and Ennis for a while.

His big moment came in the second period after Gauthier won a puck battle down low to free the puck for Lindholm, starting a rush the other way. Moore saw the play developing and flew the zone early to get a step on the rush. He took the pass from Lindholm at the offensive blueline, fought off Trevor Daley on the half-wall, and bumped a nice touch pass to Lindholm for his first NHL point. This fourth-line goal put the wind back in the Leafs’ sails.

5.  We’re running out of superlatives for what Morgan Rielly has done in the first half of the season here. He’s on a pace that would count this among the top 15 seasons by an NHL defenseman all time. The only players ahead of him on that hypothetical list are Bobby Orr, Paul Coffee, Al MacInnis, Brian Leetch, and Dennis Potvin. And that is without adjusting for era. The best modern-day season is Karlsson’s 82 points in 82 games with 16 goals (Rielly’s now at 13 goals, with 44 points in 37 games).

Is it going to hold over 82? Probably not, but don’t tell Rielly that. He doesn’t appear to be listening anyway and is tracking for a 29 goal, 68 assist (98 pts) season.

6.  Improving to 5-1-1 on the season, Garret Sparks was able to bail the Leafs out a number of times when they were taking on water without ever really inspiring much confidence in the crease, and he left some makeable saves out there on a couple of the goals against. It was a continuation of the Sparks story this season so far: Mixed performance overall, but he got the run support to win the game. It remains to be seen whether Sparks can prove he’s got the goods to back up Andersen permanently, but it’s better to be winning while you adjust to the NHL than the opposite scenario, to be sure. An offense that can score like the Leafs’ provides quite the cover to find your game under (see Domingue, Louis in Tampa Bay).

7.  An interesting thing to keep an eye on: With Tyler Ennis out, Nazem Kadri took over the spot on the left half wall on the second unit, meaning he was double shifting after his regular shift with the big-boy unit. Kadri made hay on the PP once he was moved into the middle in what was a sage move from Babcock and Jim Hiller; the shot isn’t really there for him to be a credible half-wall threat, but he’s plenty willing to get his nose dirty and can finish in tight on jam plays or skilled redirects. He certainly has the play-making skills to survey the ice and thread a seam pass, though, and while Babcock could double up Matthews here instead, he’s likely thinking Kadri could use the extra time and offensive opportunity more than Matthews needs it right now. There’s probably a bench-management consideration with who he wants available coming off of the power play as well.

8.  William Nylander came out looking like he wouldn’t go home without a goal. While he was moved back to Kadri’s line after a few bad shifts with Matthews in the first period, he was nonetheless one of the most involved (in a good way) players for the Leafs throughout the night. He was a statistical anomaly, finishing first on the team with almost a 70% share of on-ice shot attempts while most of the team was well below 50%, first on the team in shots for percentage with 58.3%, first on the team with a scoring chance percentage of 80% and controlled 100% of the high danger scoring chances (4-0) while on the ice. There were a couple of vintage Willy rushes on display tonight, it really feels like he’s on the verge of the breakthrough.

9John Tavares finished off the buzzer-beating tying goal with just over seven seconds left in the third, but his role in the comeback far exceeded just the 4-4 tally. His performance tonight was similar to the Florida game that the Leafs came back to salvage a point from; the night seemed to be getting away from the Leafs, the rest of their stars up front were fading away with the game, and Tavares seemingly just hit the switch and willed the team into it on his own, winning battle after battle to turn the momentum in the Leafs’ favour. John Tavares is what happens when big-time skill meets big-time will in equal measure.

10.  In 3-on-3 overtime, Mitch Marner was involved in a couple of plays that, had they ended up in the back of the net, would have been surefire goal-of-the-year candidates. The first was a rush play where he chipped the puck past Hronek into an open area before diving at the pill and swatting it on net. The second was a dizzying display of skill and vision as he avoided the poke check by pulling the puck back between his legs and sent a perfect pass to Tavares, who rang the crossbar. Marvel at this:

And then realize this is was somehow even more impressive than the actual game-winner, which involved Kasperi Kapanen’s amazing solo effort to cut in, turn back, and put a spin-o-rama backhand shot on net that squeezed through Jonathan Bernier for the victory.

Merry Christmas, Leafs fans. Your team is a shift-by-shift highlight reel.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Detroit Red Wings

Condensed Game