Morgan Rielly and Mitch Marner led the way with three-point nights as the Toronto Maple Leafs stayed perfect on the season with a 4-1 road win in Columbus on Friday night.
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1. The Blue Jackets came out fast in their home opener and the Leafs were back on their heels, but to their credit, they weren’t showing much panic in their game. They weathered the storm without giving up much in the way of grade-A chances. Frederik Andersen had to make a few saves on a couple of half chances, but there was nothing too threatening as the Leafs stayed composed and protected the critical areas of the ice well.
The Leafs settled into the game nicely in the second half of the first period — stringing together a number of tight, controlled zone exits and getting on top of the Blue Jackets with their speed over four lines — and they looked to be in full control halfway through the game after Cody Ceci put them up 2-0.
It wasn’t like the Ottawa game, though, in that the Jackets didn’t go quietly into the night after falling behind by a couple of goals. Columbus isn’t an easy team to play against, particularly in their arena — sticks and bodies everywhere, blocked shots, plenty of finished checks and extra efforts in puck battles — and it looked like the Leafs let their foot off the gas too early with a poor second half to the middle frame.
Fortunately, Frederik Andersen handily won the goaltending battle over Joonas Korpisalo (The Leafs have given up quite a few clean breakaway looks in the first two games with a defenseman caught up ice and a forward escaping alone— many shorthanded, but a few at 5on5 — which Andersen has made look like much less of an issue by stopping all of them). The Leafs also have so many difference-makers they can lean on offensively, with Mitch Marner putting the game in hand in the third with a brilliant individual effort.
2. Strangely even numbers in this game: Every period was split 50-50 in shot attempts (15-15, 15-15, 10-10) and the shots on goal finished at 29-29. The Leafs were outshot at 5v5 and outchanced by the Blue Jackets in both overall scoring chances and high-danger chances. That agrees with the eye test, more or less.
3. What a nice play by John Tavares on the one-touch exchange with Mitch Marner for the 1-0 goal on the power play.
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) October 4, 2019
There has been a lot of discussion about Paul McFarland’s power-play units orienting around Marner and Matthews’ one-time sides, but Tavares in the bumper role is a notable change worth discussing as well. I mentioned it in a few reviews last season: Replacing the JVR net-front role with Tavares had some logic to it — it let the Leafs keep Kadri heavily involved in his favourite spot (the slot role) — but it wasn’t firing on all cylinders throughout the year. Tavares didn’t get an ideal number of touches and he went spells where he wasn’t too big of a factor on the man advantage, particularly as it stumbled in the second half of the season and into the playoffs. Partly it was due to the fact that the unit became predictably Marner-heavy on the half wall when running the puck down low through Tavares more would’ve been a welcome change of pace, but it’s also just not the best use of Tavares’ strengths.
Tavares makes his living in the slot and one of his assets — in addition to his obvious strength on his stick (insert a Babcock crowbar reference) and the quickness of his hands — is his savviness making little pick plays and tying up sticks; he’s always aware of where the puck is going and opens up seams for himself and others by tying up/swatting a stick out of the lane (he gave JG Pageau a little lift just prior to Matthews’ goal versus Ottawa on the pass from Marner). He’s going to be able to create some quick one-time opportunities for himself on short passes into the slot and he can also help open up seams through the slot with his presence in the middle.
Getting Tavares more involved in the puck touches in general is a plus. He’s impossible to move or lift when he’s claimed his ice in the slot with his stick on the ice. Matthews looks like he’s going to score a lot of goals from the right-hand side this season, but I’m expecting an uptick in Tavares’ power-play production this season as well (up over 20 points).
4. For all the hoopla about the Jason Spezza scratch, he saw nearly 11 minutes, played on both sides of special teams, and all of his 5v5 faceoff starts were in the d-zone (in addition to the PK draws). Babcock got value out of him and seemed to trust him to play his role. He drew the power play that led to the Mitch Marner goal, although he had a few turnovers in his time on the PP (one led to a good shorthanded chance). There is clearly a plan in place here to keep Spezza contributing to the cause even if it’s not for all 82 games.
5. The Leafs fourth line finished with 7 attempts for / 0 against, and 5 shots for / 0 against at 5v5, with their best sequence coming in the first half of the second period where they generated a couple of lengthy o-zone shifts in succession. The active rotation appears to be keeping everyone hungry, but the common thread is Frederik Gauthier’s work steering play and extending zone time with his size, reach, and support on the cycle. Who would have thought, of all the fourth-line contenders at camp, that Goat would be the only one fastened in the lineup right now? He’s earned it so far.
6. Rasmus Sandin experienced his first big-league forecheck tonight and gave the first indication so far that he’s actually a rookie teenaged defenseman with a number of rough moments (turnover right in front, couple stumbles/bobbled pucks, caught up ice on a bad pinch). It was the first time the game looked fast for him. There is only one way to learn how to survive momentum swings on the road in a tough building — by experiencing it. His learning curve is shorter than most, though, and I’d expect a bounce-back showing tomorrow.
7. For a team that couldn’t buy a power play last season (31st in the NHL), the Leafs have now generated five power play opportunities in back-to-back games to start 2019-20. Not sure if there is a trend reversal here yet, but they had five or more power plays in just six of 82 games last season — and zero from late February onwards through the playoffs.
William Nylander has drawn three of the 10 on his own, with his line possessing the puck over 60% of the time through two games.
8. Definitely saw some predictions out there that Mitch Marner would push himself too hard to live up to the contract right away and struggle early. He also got criticized for asking for elite goal scorer/Matthews money (rightfully so) and now has two goals and four points in the opening two. Still wince at the contract, and said criticisms remain valid, but props for putting the whole ordeal behind him the best way he possibly could so far. He was electric tonight.
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) October 5, 2019
9. It feels like Morgan Rielly adds another dimension to his game every offseason. He’s taking on heavy PK minutes early in the year and looks good doing it so far. He’s played 18+ ES minutes plus ~three minutes on either side of special teams in the two games so far — and has four assists, while easing Cody Ceci’s transition into the team to the tune of a 68% CF for the pairing tonight after an 83% CF vs. Ottawa. A stud workhorse performance again tonight.
10. We’ll finish with this: The ‘Randy Carlyle-ization’ of Mike Babcock among certain factions of the fan base has been funny to watch recently. Hilariously, the opening-night Jason Spezza scratch stoked the narrative that he likes knuckle-dragging fourth lines, hates skill, and did it to prove a point to Kyle Dubas.
(Full disclosure: He was basically beyond reproach for me from 2015-16 to 2017-18, but I didn’t think Babcock had a great 2018-19, which I wrote about here. I still see him as a good coach).
Babcock has now entered the 2019-20 season seemingly more open to rotating in bodies on the fourth line and bottom pairing — likely a Dubas preference, but it’s also just a smart move to keep depth players engaged and ready to contribute once injuries hit, particularly down the stretch and into the playoffs. If a rash of injuries occur at the worst time of year in the postseason, having a player(s) that’s played more than four games of NHL hockey in the last eight months at the ready is clearly a better situation for the player and the team. Keeping Spezza in an active rotation at his age and limitations makes sense.
It’s also obvious to me that the Leafs are taking strides towards playing “shorter” in how they break out and generate speed in more organized five-man units. Auston Matthews is now on the top PP unit, while William Nylander is back with Matthews at 5v5 (which Babcock would’ve liked all year last year if things had worked out differently). Babcock ran a fourth line with Nic Petan and Jason Spezza on it tonight. His teams have no tough guys on them (Andreas Johnsson was the closest thing tonight) and play a high-speed, high-skill brand of game. His Leafs teams (post-tank year) have largely scored the lights out offensively, and through the playoffs last year into early this season, it looks to me like the team is beginning to take positive steps in terms of how they check and possess the puck at 5v5.
The logic has never checked out that Babcock could be an overly stubborn coach who is too stuck in his ways — keep in mind all coaches are to some degree — while winning so many games so consistently over such a long period of time as the game has evolved so considerably. Early signs suggest he’s integrated plenty of new ideas already this season.
11. That was a lie, we have to finish with this:
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) October 5, 2019
5v5 Game Flow: Leafs 4 vs. Blue Jackets 1