Despite a reasonably encouraging first 40 minutes, the Toronto Maple Leafs fell short in a measuring-stick matchup against the Nashville Predators on Monday night.
Your game in ten:
1. Unsurprisingly, this game was played in a different league from the Vancouver game on Saturday — Nashville has a talented, mobile defense core that steps up and holds their line really well, they bring dogged back pressure, they contest every puck, they give up no easy looks, and they lean on you all over the ice. It’s a fun reminder of how deep and skilled the Leafs are now when they beat up on a bad team on a Saturday night at home, but these are the yard-stick games this Leaf team needs to really get up for now that they’re expected to win playoff rounds.
2. They ended up putting a season-low 18 shots on goal, but the Leafs missed the net 20 times and had 23 shots blocked in this game. The Leafs weren’t outplayed or outworked through 40 minutes; it just didn’t come easily against a composed veteran team. The breaks went against them — the Leafs generated a great response to the 1-0 NSH power play goal only for a reversal on a marginal offside call unrelated to the goal — Pekka Rinne was outstanding, and the Leafs didn’t take advantage of their opportunities, particularly on the power play.
3. A quick look at the scoring chance and shot location confirms what the eye test suggested — the Leafs had nothing to hang their head about in the first 40 minutes. The Leafs were breaking out with good support — lots of short bump passes to get them moving up and out of the zone — skating/competing well for the most part, and got some looks from the inside.
However, the third period, as Mike Babcock put it, was men vs. boys. The Predators looked like the veteran team that has been through the wars and knows how to close out games, while the Leafs wanted to tie the game up on one shift instead of slowly chipping away at it and playing the game properly. Entering the third period up 2-0, the Predators carried an 18-13 lead in shot attempts, outshot the Leafs 11-4, out-chanced them 9-1, and outscored them 2-0 at 5v5.
4. Especially in this kind of game, there was a lot to like about what the Leafs got out of their fourth line. While their minutes were limited as the Leafs chased the game, with Trevor Moore and Par Lindholm on the ice, the Leafs carried over 60% of the shot attempts and scoring chances; a few times, they were able to set up a scoring line with an offensive zone start. They didn’t play much in the third, but when they got on the ice, they went out, established a cycle, and Lindholm drew a penalty while working the puck on the wall. The Leafs don’t do enough of that — draw penalties off of extended down-low cycles — and it shows in their penalties-drawn numbers. Refreshing to see.
5. Should mention the Nashville power play leading to the 1-0 goal was generated on a partial fourth-line shift, in fairness. The Leafs were coming off of a power play, so it was Lindholm – Gauthier – Kapanen / Dermott – Zaitsev on the ice. The Leafs turned the puck over three times in the neutral zone (awkward handoff between Kapanen and Gauthier, a failed dump in) and once in the d-zone off of a bad Zaitsev turnover (blind pass through Gauthier’s feet into the middle of the ice). When the loaded power play isn’t producing and it creates a tough shift like that from a mishmash unit right after…
6. The 28th-ranked Predators power play outproduced the top-10 Leafs power play with a simple approach: They pounded a puck from up top and got a screened deflection in front. The Leafs are banging their heads against the wall at the moment looking for seam plays through Marner on the half wall, and while they got one redirect from John Tavares to Matthews at the back-post that Matthews couldn’t finish into the empty net, the whole thing remains predictable. It was deja vu to the Minnesota game: The Predators collapsed, didn’t bite on the pre-shot movement, stayed in their lanes, and Pekka Rinne was a wall in net.
The second unit, meanwhile, has largely been a waste of time; may as well hit fast forward to the end of the power play. There is just nothing doing there at the moment.
7. I don’t blame the coaching staff for not wanting to be reactionary about a power play unit that was lighting the league on fire once upon a time, but if I were to suggest something radical — beyond attempting more shots through traffic from the top of the umbrella and looking for screens/tips/deflections/second+third opportunities, which is step one — I wonder about shifting to an approach where John Tavares moves over to the halfwall on the Marner unit and Matthews and Nylander reunite on power-play unit #2.
It accomplishes a few things:
- The “second” unit (name only) is relevant again. Especially in the playoffs when the matchup game and bench management is accentuated, you need a second unit that can play minutes and contribute something. That’s not the case right now.
- It might help get William Nylander going.
- The “second” unit brings a different dynamic with two big shot threats on the half walls in Matthews and Nylander as opposed to the Marner seam-pass showcase.
- It gets John Tavares more involved with more puck touches; he’s good at deflections and puck retrievals down low, but he’s not overly involved on the man advantage of late. He’s run a power play his entire career and is good at it.
- Mixing things up over a long season is sometimes necessary; power plays have to evolve as teams adjust.
The Leafs are 0-for-9 in their last four games, 1-for-15 in their last seven, and 4-for-32 in their last 12, with three of those goals coming in one game vs. Florida on December 15. Since November 1, the Leafs are converting at 18.5% — 15th in the NHL.
8. A four-goals-against, .875 save percentage night from Michael Hutchinson is an unfair reflection of his play. I didn’t think any of the goals were at all on the goaltender and he made every save you could’ve reasonably asked of him. Through three starts, he’s given the Leafs a chance in each one.
9. Auston Matthews’ 5v5 play has taken some flak in this space the last couple of weeks, but this was more like early-season, pre-injury Matthews tonight, particularly in the opening 40 minutes. He hit a post with a slapper off the rush, fired high on a good look, was robbed of a goal he largely created and finished off nicely with the offside call, and missed an empty-net chance he’d normally bury on the third-period power play. We saw more jump from him on a shift-to-shift basis than we’ve seen in some time; he was flying through the neutral zone early and putting in the second and third efforts toward sustaining pressure in the offensive zone.
10. With this loss — the Leafs’ third in their last four games — and Boston winning four in a row, the Bruins are now four points back with the same number of games played as Toronto. That makes Saturday night’s game at home vs. the Bruins the biggest of the season so far. This is likely going to be a battle for home ice the rest of the way, and we need no reminders of how critical it might be to play a potential Game 7 at home.
Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts